“The Upside”

 

            It's a plesant surprise to find a quality film release in January;  the ones the studios think are worthy of Oscar consideration are all released by Christmas.  This one probably won't win any Academy Awards, but it is an engaging, multi-layered story that communicates on many different levels.

            Phillip (Bryan Cranston) is an enormously successful entrepeneur and writer who has recently become a quadriplegic because of a paragliding accident.  (He always liked to “push the envelope,” and therefore insisted on going, even in a thunderstorm.)  Yes, he's indulging in some self-recrimination.  And he's not immune to self-pity, either.  But his beloved wife died of cancer soon after that, and all he is left, besides the paid help, is a former assistant, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), who is somewhat straight-laced and wound too tight, but she's trying to help him adjust to his new realities.  She's interviewing a series of candidates for personal caretaker, and perhaps the least qualified is Dell (Kevin Hart). 

            Dell's parole officer insisted that he prove he's trying to find a job by requiring him to acquire signatures from potential employers.  Dell's got a lot of other problems; the strained relationship with his ex-wife and their son, he's been evicted from his apartment, and his old drug dealer is ready for Dell to go to work for him again.  He barges into an interview with Yvonne and Phillip with no idea what he's getting himself into, but Phillip sees something in Dell; something qualitatively different from all the stick-in-the-muds who've applied so far.  Dell is a character full of life and brimming with energy, plus he's coming into this rich man's lair like Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady,” fresh off the streets and knowing nothing about rich people's airs.

            Kevin Hart is a great choice for this multi-dimensional role.  He can be both tough and tender, both self-absorbed and uncannily perceptive.  He feels guilty for the mess he's made of his life, but he never gives up trying to make amends, especially with his wife and son.  He's willing to learn about things that formerly were of no interest to him, like opera.  He's also quite capable of bursting the bubbles of arrogance and stuffiness around him.  He can be flamboyant or subdued, as the situation demands.

            Bryan Cranston is already an accomplished actor, but here, he had to learn to act from only the neck up.  It all had to be conveyed in facial expression, tone, cadence, and mood.  Sometimes he would default into the arrogant rich man, but he also could still enjoy a joy ride in a fast car.  He shows grief with a silent tear running down his cheek, which he's not able to wipe off.  He enjoys a correspondence relationship with a woman who appears to be as intelligent and well-heeled as he is, but sometimes the reality doesn't meet the fantasy.  He still dreams of soaring through the sky, because that was his last pleasant memory before his life dramatically changed.

            Director Neil Burger handles it all with a deft touch; allowing neither maudlin sentimentality nor condescending slapstick.  But there's a good sense of humor sprinkled throughout the serious drama, “based on a true story,” but also containing that ring of authenticity that draws the viewers to these flawed but artful characters.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association