There are lots of reasons, good and bad, to remake a movie; I don’t see any of them in Neil Burger’s rote remake of Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano’s Les Intouchables. Even the most cynical, mercantile reasons to redo something just a little bit differently don’t hold much water in this case. It’s one thing to go overseas and cynically repackage something to squeeze more money out of it; when the thing you’re squeezing is unquestionably one of the most popular and profitable mainstream feel-good hits of the last decade, what’s the endgame? But The Upside isn’t just a pointless remake — it’s a doomed one by design, an absolute dead end from the first step to the last. Trying to Americanize and sand the edges off of a movie that arguably found most of its success in its ability to crystallize the essence of the sappy American movie for undiscerning boomers is a tremendously bad look — and that’s before you even get into what the movie is about.
One of the conditions of Dell Scott’s (Kevin Hart) parole is that he regularly prove to his parole officer that he’s looking for a job. For the chronically unmotivated Dell, that mostly means blowing his way through job interviews and getting a signature from the person conducting it. That’s what lands him in a job interview he’s highly unqualified for: being the life auxiliary for a quadriplegic millionaire named Philippe Lacasse (Bryan Cranston). Dell knows he can’t get the job, Philippe’s assistant of sorts Yvonne (Nicole Kidman) knows he shouldn’t get the job, and yet Philippe decides that Dell will definitely be the one who gets it. As you would guess, it’s not a match made in heaven: not only is Dell essentially completely incompetent and unprepared for the job, but he comes from a world that’s completely foreign to the rarefied air breathed by his new employer.
In the original film, Philippe was an aristocrat who came from old money and Dell (who was called Driss) was a Senegalese immigrant; here, P (as he soon becomes known) is a self-made billionaire and Dell has always only known the projects, an absent father and general misery. It’s one of many seemingly arbitrary changes that has been made in order to Americanize the film and, while I understand the general practicality of it (America doesn’t have the same kind of aristocracy, and a Senegalese immigrant to the States would likely end up with a language barrier), it’s stunning to see how every decision that has been made to separate the remake from the original makes it markedly worse.
Granted, I’m no great fan of the original — it’s a perfect example of beige, down-the-middle, somewhat mollycoddling and condescending middlebrow entertainment. What it has to say about race relations is suspect at best, and it gets by mostly on the chemistry and performances of the two leads. As in Les intouchables, the best moments of The Upside are its most throwaway ones: when P and D (as they colloquially become known) smoke some weed and eat some hotdogs, when they pull pranks on his cartoonishly uppity neighbour (Tate Donovan) etc. Those scenes have an organic slackness that uses the actors in the best way possible. On the other hand, every scene where we’re meant to learn something about human nature is heavy-handed and mawkish as all hell. Suddenly, there’s nothing these actors could do or say to save it.
It’s also in the acting that you can begin to sniff out the reasons why such a rote and uninspired remake may have come to pass. Les intouchables made Omar Sy into a huge star in France; he won the César for best actor that year and, while he has seemed more interested in cashing out the goodwill by taking uninteresting supporting roles in American blockbusters, it has made him into a legit A-list personality in France. Kevin Hart is already that Stateside, and yet the film seems to have been tailored to the comedic functions we’ve come to expect from Kevin Hart. In other words, they’ve taken one of the most popular buddy films of the decade and turned it into a Kevin Hart vehicle that also happens to have Bryan Cranston in it. It’s pitched as if it’s going to be Hart’s Punch Drunk Love, but it’s not even his Reign Over Me. It’s his The Cobbler.
Even setting aside the fact that the film’s promotional tour has been a nightmare scenario of its stars continually putting their foot in their mouth, they both feel miscast in the film. Their characters are so tightly sketched out (and, in Hart’s case, so fitted to his strengths) that they don’t really feel like they have an arc of any kind — they feel like they’re already there. Dell doesn’t seem like a guy who has known misery and incarceration his whole life; he seems like a diminutive comedian millionaire thrust into some kooky situations. Cranston is similarly miscast; he simply doesn’t scream “stuck up billionaire who only knows opera and Cy Twombly.” Cranston is simply too likeable to even have an arc at all.
The timing for the release of The Upside is particularly thorny; delayed for over a year in the fallout of the Harvey Weinstein scandal (it was originally meant to be distributed by his company), it now comes out in the fallout of the controversial success of Green Book — a film that, upon closer inspection, pretty much took all of its cues from Les intouchables before slathering them in pizza grease. All of this makes The Upside feel particularly useless and unwelcome, but the fact is the movie itself does a bangup job of getting there all by itself. It’s an exercise in futility, as if someone decided they were going to cover a classic album from start to finish and did note-perfect takes in the wrong key… and every song ends abruptly, one minute early. ■
The Upside opens in theatres on Friday, Jan. 11. Watch the trailer below.
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Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston in The Upside, a remake of Les Intouchables