Between the TV ads and the presence of Kevin Hart, it’d be natural to assume that “The Upside” is a constant laff riot — or as much of a laff riot as a story can be in which one of the two principals, played by Bryan Cranston, is a quadriplegic. True, he’s a billionaire, so the phrase “medical bills” is never heard over the course of 126 minutes. But money is about as good at buying humor as it is at buying happiness.
Instead of being a comedy, “The Upside” is more feel-good drama interrupted by bits of shtick. Hart plays Dell, the billionaire’s highly improbable “life auxiliary” (highly improbable as in: no experience and a rap sheet). There are catheter jokes, wheelchair jokes, and a joke about mouth-to-mouth resuscitation that’s actually very funny. But they’re incidental to the larger business of everyone in the movie trying to Make the Best of a (Very) Bad Situation. Put another way, Hart dials it down to about a three on the Kevin-Hart-o-Meter. Hey, maybe he would have been an OK Oscars host.
The movie’s a remake of a French film, “Les Intouchables” (2011), which was a massive hit in France. The story’s been transplanted to New York. Cranston’s billionaire lives in a Park Avenue penthouse. The apartment has so much expensive artwork — recognizably expensive — the Museum of Modern Art could annex it. When was the last time you saw a movie where Kevin Hart slept in a bedroom with an Ed Ruscha hanging on the wall?
Cranston and Hart are surprisingly good together. Their chemistry goes a long way to making up for the many implausibilities in the story and the presence of several extraneous subplots. You’ll be relieved to learn that Dell’s son is a straight-A student.
Cranston has had an amazing run for more than a decade now: winning multiple Emmys for “Breaking Bad,” a Tony for “All the Way,” and an Oscar nomination for “Trumbo,” and getting rave reviews right now for the Broadway adaptation of “Network.” Phillip Lacasse, the billionaire, is no Walter White — or Lyndon Johnson or Howard Beale — but playing someone restricted to a wheelchair is challenge enough. Cranston lets us see how Phillip can be all at once resigned and resentful, sardonic and wary — and in a way that never seems cheap, fun-loving. Cranston also uses that splendid voice of his to excellent effect. His pronunciation of the word “kumquat” is almost worthy of a subplot of its own.
Nicole Kidman, as Phillip’s executive assistant, plays off of Cranston and Hart almost as well as they play off of each other. You almost sense her pleasure in not having to carry a movie she’s in. What makes “The Upside” work as well as it often does is how the actors are able to convey the unlikely affinity these unlikely people share. Golshifteh Farahani is likable but pretty much wasted as Phillip’s physical therapist. Tate Donovan’s character, a snooty neighbor in the building, is the one outright misstep.
Some disabled-rights activists have criticized Cranston’s casting. This does rather seem to miss the point twice over. Acting is about plausible pretending; and, for better or worse, lead actors in a multi-million-dollar investment, which is what a major Hollywood movie is, are expected to be famous. Hence the casting of Cranston and, especially, Hart. Activists would be more justified in criticizing the character of Dell, whose you’ve-got-to-be-kidding unsuitability as an aide for someone so severely impaired isn’t just the fish-out-of-water joke it’s supposed to be. It’s also insulting, even demeaning, in a way that Cranston’s casting can’t begin to rival.
Directed by Neil Burger. Written by Jon Hartmere; based on Éric Toledano and Olivier Nakache’s screenplay for “Les Intouchables.” Starring Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart, Nicole Kidman, Golshifteh Farahani, Tate Donovan, Julianna Margulies. At Boston theaters and suburbs. 126 minutes. PG-13 (suggestive content, drug use)