The Upside tells a feel-good story with no real surprises. But that's okay. The movie's pleasures lie in its details and its top-drawer performances.
We know exactly what's coming the minute we see Dell (Kevin Hart), a wisecracking black ex-con, turning up at the palatial New York penthouse of a white millionaire named Phillip (Bryan Cranston). Phillip is a paraplegic (he broke his spine in a paragliding accident) and he's in need of a new caregiver—someone to lift him from bed to wheelchair every day, to take him outside for walks, and to generally be on call 24/7. The job comes with deluxe room and board, and naturally there are many highly qualified candidates for it. But Phillip, listening intently as his assistant Yvonne (a crisp Nicole Kidman) interviews applicants, dislikes the condescending pity they all radiate. (When one of them implores him, "Let me be your hands, your legs…," Cranston's eyeballs look like they're going to roll all the way out of his head.)
The only reason Dell has come here is because his parole officer has demanded signed proof that he's out in the world looking for work. So of course it's he who gets the gig—Phillip likes his gumption. Inevitably, the movie now asks: Can these two characters from opposite sides of the sociocultural divide somehow discover their common humanity? Might they even have important cultural lessons to impart to one another? Please rephrase these questions as statements.
What makes the movie more fun than you might imagine is the comedic chemistry that Hart and Cranston bring to their characters. Hart's Dell has obvious elements of black cliché—the onetime gangbanger who's graduated to serious crime and can't be bothered to support his wife and child. But he's also secretly smart, and his intelligence blossoms in Phillip's opulent orbit. When he learns that his new employer got rich investing in fledgling businesses, he starts pitching him ideas—one of them for an app that will help people locate their drug dealers. (He calls it iDeal.) Phillip turns this one down.
If Hart is a bolt of energy goosing the picture along, Cranston is a perfect, serene foil. Limited to using only facial expressions and wry line readings, the actor holds his own even in the most outlandish scenes (like the one in which Dell learns it's time to change Phillip's catheter, and Phillip gets a chuckle out of Dell's panic at having to fumble around in his crotch).
It's hard not to like these two as they go through their foreordained changes. Phillip, who owns many high-end sports cars, delights in having Dell take him out for late-night spins at top speed. He also likes it when Dell wheels him around his uptown hood to score pot, then shares a joint with him, and then steers him into a hot-dog emporium for a treat that Phillip hasn't tasted for years. ("Give me all your hot dogs!" he tells the counterman.) For his part, Dell slowly comes to appreciate the operatic arias that Phillip has playing nonstop at home, while Dell in turn schools Phillip (you knew this was going to happen) in the funky delights of soul music. (There's a nice moment when Phillip demonstrates for Dell a connection between Aretha Franklin and Puccini.)
So what's not to like? Well, the movie very closely follows the 2011 French film on which it's based (and which in turn was inspired by a 2003 documentary about Dell and Phillip's real-life counterparts), and not all of it works. There's Phillip's hopeful rendezvous with a woman he's been corresponding with (Julianna Margulies), which is too ambiguous to do more than limply set up a later development in the story. And the big set-piece scene in which Dell stages an unwanted party for Phillip's birthday, while chaotically funny at first, devolves into overdone nonsense. It's also out of proportion in a movie whose modesty is such a large part of its charm.