By Preston Wilder
The French comedy The Intouchables made over $400 million worldwide in 2011, and remains the third-biggest film of all time in France (after Titanic and Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis); but not everyone was happy. The film, the tale of a friendship between a white quadriplegic and his black caregiver, “flings about the kind of Uncle Tom racism one hopes has permanently exited American screens,” wrote Jay Weissberg in Variety, calling it “offensive” and “cringe-worthy” – and of course Weissberg is American, that country’s heightened sensitivity to racial issues making the inevitable Hollywood remake something of a risky proposition. Here it is anyway, slightly delayed (it was made in 2017) and surprisingly faithful to the original, if also different in a few significant ways.
The main difference is a subtle one. Mr Weissberg was wrong, as it happens, because Intouchables is the opposite of racist: it’s actually a film about two men (played by Omar Sy and Francois Cluzet) who turn out to be very similar – both have a wild streak and a healthy mistrust of authority; both have nothing to lose, and only want to have fun – and bond fairly easily, making race completely irrelevant. The Upside, on the other hand, has a slightly different dynamic. Phillip Lacasse (Bryan Cranston), the billionaire who’s become paralysed from the neck down after a paragliding accident, is indeed a nonconformist with “a taste for pushing the envelope,” as he puts it, making him superficially similar to Dell Scott (Kevin Hart), the ex-con who reluctantly agrees to take care of him – but their similarity is mostly on paper, the remake lacking the joie de vivre that marked the original.
The film has to stand on its own merits, of course (most viewers won’t have seen Intouchables) – but it’s significant that the rich man in the original chose the ex-con because he glimpsed a kindred spirit, someone unlike the trained nurses with their stifling, by-the-book approach, whereas Phillip chooses Dell mostly because he, Phillip, wants to die. Dell knows nothing of nursing; he actually thinks he’s applying for a job as a janitor. “Have you ever taken care of anybody?” he’s asked, and curtly replies: “Yeah, myself!”. He’s sure to be bad at the job – and sure to oblige Phillip when it comes to “DNR”, ‘Do Not Resuscitate’, which is what Phillip wants. He wants someone who’ll let him die if (or when) he has trouble breathing. It’s a much more subdued dynamic.
That dynamic changes, of course – but less than you’d think. Phillip remains low-key, patient, restrained, patrician; “People make mistakes,” he says simply when Dell admits to stealing from him. (Cranston, acting only with his face, shows impressive technique but remains too avuncular by half.) Dell, in turn, never quite relaxes, which is where the American aspect comes in: African-Americans differ subtly from Africans – Black Panther built a whole movie around this difference – carrying a lot more resentment. At one point, Phillip is upset at having been forced into a surprise birthday party against his wishes (how I spend my time is the only thing I’m able to control, he protests), and Dell blows up at him for not being content with his privileged life; some of us, he notes, have “real problems”. The suggestion that being paralysed from the neck down is not a ‘real problem’ – and is somehow balanced out by white privilege – is quaint, to put it mildly, but the film rolls with it.
The Upside is predictable, but it isn’t cheap. It’s a careful, sensitive movie. The central relationship steers clear of ‘Uncle Tom racism’; it’s a friendship, but it doesn’t magically wash away the racial (and class) divide between the two men. The disabled white man learns a lesson in what it means to be marginalised, like a black man (“Welcome to my world!”). Director Neil Burger approaches the clichés with love, as if to redeem them: Dell is taken to the opera, where he laughs at the silly costumes – then we cut to the end of the show and the camera moves slowly, ever so slowly, across Phillip to find Dell, now sitting spellbound. (You know it’s coming, but the slow pan makes it slightly magical.) The trouble, alas, is that clichés can’t entirely be redeemed – and making the friendship more tentative also makes the film less feelgood, less of a crowd-pleaser. It’s unlikely to ever make $400 million.
Anything else? Not really, just a few random notes. The film’s dodgy status as a product of The Weinstein Company, for instance, which may explain the delay in releasing it (the timing isn’t great, with Green Book also touting inter-racial friendship). The ‘catheter scene’ where Dell is unable to even say the word ‘penis’, much less touch another man’s – a reminder of Kevin Hart’s recent troubles over homophobic tweets. The sign-of-the-times predictability of smoking weed being depicted as a force for good. The rather lame final song choice, reeking of cop-out. In the end, The Upside is a movie where the question ‘“Nessun Dorma” or Aretha Franklin?’ is answered with ‘Both!’. What can I say? It’s no Intouchables.
DIRECTED BY Neil Burger
STARRING Kevin Hart, Bryan Cranston, Nicole Kidman
US 2019 126 mins