Kevin Hart's transition from brattily charming comic persona to serious dramatic cinematic presence isn't going quite as planned. The comedian's first turn in a more serious role in "The Upside" — a remake of the award-winning French hit "The Intouchables," across from Bryan Cranston and Nicole Kidman — should have been a slam dunk. And yet, "The Upside" is missing some crucial elements, and it's a struggle to find the bright side to this rather hackneyed film.
One of the thing's missing is Hart's manic energy, which he can't quite translate into an effective or poignant toned-down performance. Part of what makes his comedic performances work is his characters' cheerful arrogance that is constantly rebutted by those around him within a heightened reality, offering a silly push and pull. With this muted performance in a naturalistic world as the down-on-his-luck Dell, that arrogance just makes him seem like a jerk.
Dell is essentially homeless, behind on child support and desperately does not want to return to dealing drugs. On the hunt for signatures to prove to his parole officer that he's looking for a job, he stumbles into a job interview in the palatial penthouse of Phillip LaCasse (Cranston), an uber-wealthy investor who is quadriplegic and requires the assistance of a "life auxiliary."
It's begrudging respect at first wisecrack for the two curmudgeons, and, in a strange turn of events, Phillip offers Dell the job. Somehow, it works, because while neither man wants to be dependent on the other, they both need to be.
You will probably guess what happens next: The two learn to love each other and embrace life through their unlikely intimate relationship. That predictability is much of the problem with the movie as a whole — so little of it is surprising or fresh. Instead it's foreseeable, plodding and laden with well-trodden tropes: an uplifting montage, an array of embarrassing female supporting character stereotypes (frigid exec, dead wife, nameless sex worker), etc. At the center, a spirited person of color teaches an uptight white guy to loosen up already.
The jokes are stale, trafficking in tired, gender-based material that hovers around the edges of misogyny and gay panic. The latter is especially cringeworthy in light of Hart's recent run-in with the LGBTQ community. Granted, we shouldn't judge a movie based on its star's off-screen persona, but we can judge it on the script, which is clunky at best. It's an adaptation of a movie that was an adaptation of a book, and it feels remote, like the copy of a copy that it is.
The direction by Neil Burger ("The Illusionist") is serviceable, but it doesn't liven things up. The best scenes show the relationship between Dell and Phillip, who share a cynical sensibility, despite their differences. Phillip appreciates that Dell doesn't pity him, that Dell demands everyone treat him as a real person, flaws, desires and all. Their chemistry is easy, unlike the forced bits and riffs that bedevil the rest of the film.
"The Upside" has a heart. It's just that the film leaves it lukewarm, focusing more on extracting laughs than tweaking emotions. While this could have been an interesting turn in Hart's career, it may be a sign he should go back to the drawing board to discover his new iteration.
★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: PG-13 for suggestive content and drug use.