Where I live, in Brooklyn’s outer reaches, subway posters for The Upside started showing up in early December, almost exactly when one of the movie’s stars, Kevin Hart, was making headlines for the old tweets and subsequent controversy that sunk his Oscar hosting gig.
The timing was unfortunate. But it wasn’t the first timing snag The Upside had encountered.
The film is a remake of the 2011 French film The Intouchables, directed by Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano and starring François Cluzet and Omar Sy. That movie was a massive hit in France, eventually becoming the No. 2 box office hit in the country and garnering eight César nominations (the Césars are like the French Oscars). Sy won in the Best Actor category.
The Intouchables is part buddy comedy, part drama: A wealthy paraplegic man named Philippe hires a black ex-convict named Driss to be his close, on-call personal assistant, and the two form (you guessed it) an unlikely friendship. It earned some raves and some boos, and ended up being the highest-grossing non-English-language movie ever, making more than $281 million worldwide.
Months before The Intouchables had even opened in France, though, the distribution rights in English-speaking countries, Scandinavian countries, and China were acquired by the Weinstein Company. Yes, the company founded by Bob Weinstein and his now-infamous brother Harvey, whose spectacular fall from grace was still more than six years away. And they started to plan an English-language remake.
The English-language remake of The Intouchables ran into some obstacles during its development
For a while, Paul Feig (of Bridesmaids and 2016’s Ghostbusters) was slated to direct. Chris Rock, Jamie Foxx, and Idris Elba were all rumored to be in consideration for Sy’s role, and Colin Firth was attached to play Cluzet’s. The film was also set to add an additional female lead, with Jessica Chastain and Michelle Williams under consideration.
But things did not move quickly. Feig dropped out in 2013. Kevin Hart was cast in 2014 as the character now named Dell, with Firth still attached to play Philip (formerly Philippe). Bryan Cranston eventually replaced Firth. Nicole Kidman was cast as the female lead, Yvonne, who manages Philip’s business. And Neil Burger, director of films like Limitless, Divergent, and The Illusionist was brought in to direct.
The film shot in 2017 in Philadelphia, and premiered on September 8 of that year at the Toronto International Film Festival. Which turned out to be the worst possible time.
A month later, on October 5, the New York Times published substantial allegations of sexual assault against Harvey Weinstein, which kicked off a cavalcade of additional allegations against Weinstein as well as a number of other powerful men in Hollywood and well beyond.
Harvey Weinstein was soon dismissed from the Weinstein Company, booted from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (the body that awards the Oscars), and eventually indicted on charges of rape and sexual assault.
And his company suffered, too. The Weinstein Company first announced that it would declare bankruptcy February 26, 2018. But for a few days afterward, it seemed the company had struck a deal with a group of investors and would be saved. That is, until it turned out it had more debt on its books than previously revealed, and the deal collapsed on March 6. The company filed for bankruptcy on March 19, and by midsummer it had been shut down, and its assets sold to a newly created group called Lantern Entertainment.
The Upside is finally coming out because a new company owns The Weinstein Group’s library
On July 16, 2018, for a total of $298 million, Lantern Entertainment acquired Weinstein Group’s library of 277 films. That slate included some big names: The King’s Speech, The Artist, Inglourious Basterds, Silver Linings Playbook, Django Unchained, and a lot more.
It also included three unreleased films. One was The Current War, starring Benedict Cumberbatch; that film also premiered at Toronto in 2017, shortly before the Weinstein story broke, and has not yet opened theatrically. One was the horror film Polaroid, which has not yet been released. And the third was The Upside.
Harvey Weinstein’s name has since been removed from the credits of The Upside, where he was initially listed as an executive producer. And the film is projected to lead a sleepy weekend at the box office, which is standard for early January; many Oscar hopefuls are just beginning to expand beyond their initial limited releases, with plenty of buzz propelling them along, so now is the time of year when studios often drop movies they’d like to get off their plate. And it’s in the film’s best interest to open before M. Night Shyamalan’s highly anticipated Glass hits theaters the following week.
Meanwhile, Hart’s non-apology tour coinciding with the period in which he would normally be touring the late-night talk shows to promote The Upside is another unfortunate coincidence for the film, with timing that couldn’t really have been anticipated. It’s possible, even likely, that some of Hart’s recent appearances were already scheduled as part of his Upside promotional tour, only to become prime opportunities to comment on his withdrawal from the hosting gig — which would certainly help explain why he’s appeared on so many shows lately, and continued talking about it.
Is The Upside any good? Some audiences will enjoy it, especially since Hart and Cranston are solid comedic performers, and the film contains a few scenes that are genuinely funny. However, the film has a predictable plot and a syrupy sentimental ending that leaves Hart’s character arc without a satisfying conclusion. The proudly clichéd way it deals with class, race, and especially disability feel tin-eared at times. And the filmmaking is shaky at best (with lots of distracting zoom-in close-ups for no real reason).
What’s more, given what’s just happened with Hart’s Oscars controversy over past homophobic tweets, an extended scene in which his character refuses to change his employer’s catheter — part of his job — because he’s too squicked out to even say the word “penis,” let alone touch one in a medical context, is played for a comedic effect that wanes as the scene wears on and on.
When Hart’s character quips (only half-jokingly, at most) that he’d “kill” his employer rather than change the man’s catheter, it’s impossible to watch outside the context of his past homophobic jokes and the debate they’ve continued to spark. It feels like the scene might have been best cut from the movie altogether, if an edit like that would even have been possible. (After all, it’s questionable whether the scene really added to the film in the first place.)
But Hart and Cranston alone should be enough to pull in a sizable audience, and The Upside is the kind of movie that a lot of people will see on an airplane and enjoy, without thinking too hard about where it came from, why it happened the way it did, and who’s starring in it. Which for the film, I suppose, is a true upside.
The Upside opens in theaters on January 11.