SPOILERS FOR THE UPSIDE BELOW
The Upside, Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston’s remake of one of France’s most popular comedies of all time, is formulaic to a fault. Two dudes who are deficient in their own ways improbably end up paired together and come out of the experience better people. If you squint hard enough, you’ll see a fair deal of A Scent of a Woman’s DNA in there, maybe mixed with Green Book. Even if you don’t pick up on the similarities, you’ll still likely see the various plot turns coming because we’ve all seen films like this before.
If this particular storytelling formula is your jam, however, The Upside is more than enjoyable. Released into the barren wasteland for new movies that is January, The Upside stands out for being perfectly competent and generally well-meaning in its depiction of a based-on-a-true-story friendship that transcends race and class. A physically (he’s a quadriplegic) and emotionally (he lost his wife to cancer) broken millionaire (Cranston) bonds with his underqualified, but likable new home health aide (Hart). Cranston and all the stuffy white shirts surrounding him (represented most directly by Nicole Kidman as a lovelorn money manager) get a long-overdue injection of fun. Hart eventually gets the money he needs to provide for an estranged wife and son, breaking a cycle of recidivism which has sent multiple generations of his family to prison.
Hilarity ensues. Hearts are warmed. Audiences walk away happy.
There are storm clouds hanging directly over every second of the film, though, and as with a real looming storm you can ignore it for a while, maybe tell yourself it won’t hit until later, but when it clobbers you in the face with rain you can’t say you hadn’t been warned.
The “rain in the face” moment – if you’ll continue to indulge my metaphor – happens roughly a third of the way through. Hart’s character – who originally thought he was interviewing to be a janitor, not a home health aide – has already been instructed on how to insert a catheter. You can see that scene at the 50-second mark of the trailer:
Fairly standard dick joke material. Us guys, we can’t stand the idea of a dick being in pain, even if it’s not our own. What that scene sets up, however, is the inevitability that at some point Hart’s character is going to have to insert the catheter himself. He, in a very clinical way as part of his job, is going to have to touch somebody else’s penis.
This is the same Kevin Hart who is uncomfortable with the thought of having a gay son, but he also wants to evolve as a person and challenge his own latent homophobia. This evolution, however, has its limits, since when directly asked by CNN’s Don Lemon Hart refused to commit to using his public platform to champion LGBTQ causes. “That’s not my life’s dream,” was his basic response.
This all came out in the messiest, yet also very “now” kind of way. An organization with power (the Academy) hired Hart to do a job (host the Oscars) and didn’t properly vet his social media history. So, somebody else did it for them. Past statements were uncovered. A PR nightmare ensued and nobody came out of it looking particularly good.
Does any of that matter to The Upside? Arguably, it shouldn’t, but it’s hard to ignore when the film reaches its inevitable catheter scene:
The nurse who normally does it is running late. The catheter bag is full. They can’t wait any longer. Hart attempts to psych himself up for it and manages to remove the old catheter with little issue.
After that, however, a prolonged comedy bit ensues. Hart nearly vomits at the thought of touching Cranston’s penis, which, btw, we never actually see since this is a PG-13 dramedy we’re talking about. Hart does the ole “Ok. Ok. I’ll do it on the count of 1, 2, 3…ah, man, I can’t do it!”
Then, because comedy loves a good doubling-down, Cranston gets an involuntary erection. Hart yells, “Put that thing down!” while shielding his eyes. Cranston, wearing a you-really-need-to-get-past-this look on his face, impatiently snarls, “I can’t. I don’t have any control over it.” Hart, eyes still covered, points in the general direction of the erection and yells, “That had better not be because of me!”
The nearly sold-out audience I saw The Upside with last weekend ate all of this up. No other scene in the movie earned laughs quite as loud and sustained as this one. The scene eventually pivots to jokes about whether Cranston’s erection is actually for Nicole Kidman’s character, thus advancing their storyline as two people who might just need an outsider to point out how obviously in love they are. So, it’s not all just “poorly timed erections are inherently funny!” or gay panic humor.
But I was left unsure how to feel. Is this scene offensive? Does it blur the line between Hart’s on-screen and off-screen views? Or is it an honest, funny reflection of how some men would feel in 2019 if they were suddenly in a position to have to touch another’s man penis for the first time in their life as part of a new job? Even if so, does that make it ok?
Kevin Hart’s personal views aren’t the only potential distraction here. The Upside was made two years ago. After debuting at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival, Upside was scooped up by The Weinstein Co. Then Harvey Weinstein’s troubles happened. Smash Cut to now and what was once going to be The Weinstein Co.’s big awards movies for 2018 is being dumped into January of 2019 by Lantern Entertainment, which bought Weinstein Co.’s assets for $289 million, and the Chinese-funded distributor STX Entertainment. Harvey can’t personally benefit from it anymore, but The Upside has his stink on it.
How much has any of this matter to regular people who have never heard of #FilmTwitter? Hardly at all, if box office is any barometer. The Upside debuted to a much-higher-than-expected $20m and then again exceeded expectations by dipping a mere 26% in its second weekend, an unusually strong hold for any movie. Now just over 10 days into its run, The Upside has grossed $48m domestic, $52m worldwide, an especially strong showing at this time of the year.
It feels like another reminder that the shit we write and get worked about online doesn’t mean a damn thing to the average moviegoer. Bryan Singer may have raped underage boys and his treatment of Freddie Mercury’s life was widely, though not entirely fairly accused of straight-washing. Hasn’t stopped Bohemian Rhapsody from setting new box office records for Fox. Green Book’s director used to expose his penis to co-workers as a joke, its writer endorsed Donald Trump’s New-York-Muslims-cheered-9/11 conspiracy theory, and no one involved in the production bothered to ask Doctor Shirley’s family to verify the accuracy of the script. All it has done since then is emerge as the Best Picture front-runner and gradually add to its modest box office totals. Other examples exist.
Time’s Stephanie Zacharek recently compared expressing your film fandom these days to being akin to some sort of legal exchange: “Instead of just processing what a film performance means, our declarations of love, or even just admiration, have become more like legal briefs, multipage documents with clauses and riders attached that must outweigh whatever we appreciated about the work itself-and there’s always someone ready to call out a perceived sin of omission.”
However, we have an economic incentive to be outraged. A hot take with a clickbait title is going to fly further than a simple movie review, no matter how eloquently argued. As such, I almost feel like I’m talking myself into being mad about and offended by The Upside’s catheter scene just because that’s how we’re supposed to react to all media today and it translates to a better headline than “The Upside about the Movie The Upside: It’s Kind of OK”.
Actually, on second thought, that’s what I should have gone with, and a “just okay” movie with one potentially problematic scene is the really the most you can expect from January.