Movie Review: The Upside

PG-13 | 2h 5min 

Director: Neil Burger

Stars: Kevin HartBryan CranstonNicole Kidman 

by Jason Koenigsberg

Let’s just jump right to the point. Kevin Hart is not funny. At least not in the sense that he can carry a feature film. Kevin Hart also is not a good actor. Not everybody can jump from stand up to feature films and excel like Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, or Adam Sandler. They are very far from the same and require completely different skill sets. Kevin Hart may be able to sell out stadiums with his stand up routine, but his ability to act opposite some of the best in the business hugely diminishes whatever onscreen charisma he has. The Upside will make you miss seeing Eddie Murphy in movies on a regular basis and begs to ask the question, “Was Eddie Murphy that amazing of an actor? Or was he able to star in such great comedies with outstanding scripts and great directors? Or were movies just that much better in the ’80s and ’90s?” Maybe all three are true, but The Upside is a hollow remake of a French film The Intouchables (2011) and it tries harder to be funny than capturing what made that film work. The result is a superficial mess that only illustrates how outclassed Kevin Hart is at being an actor.

The opening shot is of Bryan Cranston through a windshield. It then shows Kevin Hart as his driver speeding around New York City and alluding the police. I guess director Neil Burger knew his material was weak early on and felt he needed a high octane chase scene to open up the film that is supposed to be a tender story of an unlikely friendship. After the chase it cuts to six months earlier showing Kevin Hart’s character as a deadbeat dad, estranged from his wife and son and needs to find a job. Then the story gets rolling. He is the least qualified candidate for the life auxiliary position to take care of a quadriplegic billionaire but of course, with movie logic (no real reason is given) he gets the job anyway because Bryan Cranston likes his honesty thus setting off the predictable two hour plus movie where both characters will grow and learn from each other. The Upside is very similar to the recent Golden Globe winner and current Oscar favorite Green Book, except that movie at least had two terrific performances to carry the mundane script.

Here Bryan Cranston is great but it does not matter. He is not given much to do since The Upside is very much Kevin Hart’s vehicle. This movie is tailored to his comedic stylings and it is sad to say, the humorous scenes fall flat and there are not enough dramatic scenes to accurately gauge how far he can stretch his serious mode. The result shows that Kevin Hart is an actor of limited range. The always busy and usually reliable Nicole Kidman is fine in her thankless role as Hart’s boss but the script does not give her much depth or moments to work with. She just has to look stern and scold Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston when they mess up or are playing around too much.

The cinematography looks good, very glossy and a vibrant modern look that shines on the big screen and will no doubt look superb on an HD TV which is probably where most people will end up seeing this film. The crowd I saw the movie with seemed to love Kevin Hart, they laughed at the punchlines and the film played the audience like a piano. I just sort of sat there shrugging my shoulders, finding his jokes to be forced and wishing the movie stayed more on the path of a drama than a comedy, but every time it veered into what I wanted it to be, all that I could notice was Hart’s shortcomings as a dramatic actor and being outshined in the scenes he shared with Bryan Cranston and Nicole Kidman because of his limited range. Kevin Hart in The Upside reminded me of Sharon Stone in Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995). She pushed herself to the best of her ability (and even earned an Oscar nomination) but she felt so outmatched sharing her scenes opposite Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci who are so natural and real onscreen it is like they are not even acting.

The Upside is a crowd pleaser with no brain and whatever heart it has is spoiled by the little Hart who dominates the film that deserved to go to a more talented actor. Maybe it would have worked with someone else cast in Hart’s role who could have made the dialogue between his character and the other actors feel realistic. Perhaps someday Kevin Hart will find a script and a director that can compliment his talents and bring out as a side of him audiences have not seen in movies but until then, we are stuck with a film that the studio had little faith in and dumped in early January. The Upside is painfully unfunny and will likely be forgotten once better movies start coming out next month.

Start your 2019 off right and skip The Upside and instead check out The Intouchables that inspired it, or The Upside of Anger (2005) which is what I thought of every time I said the title. A fantastic underrated dramedy directed by Mike Binder starring Kevin Costner and Joan Allen.

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