We need to talk about Kevin, don’t we?
In one of those odd coincidences of timing, we’re getting The Upside, a buddy dramedy that the stand-up comedian/mega-movie star/tireless showbiz workhorse Kevin Hart signed up for a little over four years ago; shot two years ago; saw premiere in Toronto in September of 2017; watched get shelved indefinitely as collateral damage in the Harvey Weinstein sexual-harassment scandal; and sat back as this cinematic orphan was released, dead-of-January-style, right on the heels of his Oscar-host controversy. The man has been insanely lucky for a long time career-wise, but it’s tempting to think this project has been cursed. (We’re not the only folks who’ve entertained this notion.)
In both his stage routines and his usual (co-)starring vehicles, Hart has refined a persona that’s one part self-owning schlub, one part manic Id bursts, all parts dynamic stuck-in-fourth-gear forward momentum. Chances are good that when someone says his name, the first thing you thought of was the comic whipping his head around and unleashing the Kevin Look™: a pleading, what-the-fuck-just-happened look that suggests a bad day going from worse to Chernobyl. (Here’s an example. Here’s another.) That’s the comic money shot, the one that he’s made him a gajillion dollars opposite Ice Cube, The Rock, Will Ferrell, Tiffany Haddish. It’s made him a star. Dismiss him at your peril.
But you always got the feeling that the man wanted to see where else his talent could take him. He scaled the big-and-broad blockbuster mountain, stood on the summer action-comedy summit. Maybe he could be the sort of ambitious, brand-extending entertainer that’d make for a good go-to awards show M.C. (Forget the cringe-inducing tweets for a sec; past examples of him taking a stab at such gigs had not been promising. Homophobia or not, we have dodged a bullet.) Maybe he could host the Oscars. Maybe he could even be the sort of actor who gets nominated for one.
We can’t say why exactly Hart signed up for this redo of the French movie Les Intouchables, a 2011 based-on-a-true-story hit about a white quadriplegic billionaire and a black ex-convict who takes care of him that became one of the country’s highest-grossing movies ever. It’s the sort of middlebrow foreign-language film that seems exotic and highbrow only because it has subtitles; the fact that the actors are speaking French throws you off, since you’d swear you were already watching the comedy’s own American remake. Perhaps he did do it because it was a challenge, or perhaps he took it on to attract Academy attention. It’s that kind of role, the ex-con who learns life lessons and doles a few out along the way. What you do know is that there’s a different guy onscreen than what you usually get — someone grittier, someone with a little more edge, someone not likely to start mugging and shrieking. Someone who’s gamely going up against Bryan Cranston, still acting up a storm even without 3/4ths of his body at his disposal. Someone who’s trying his best to prove that he can in fact do the emotional stuff too.
Oh, you get a few scenes aiming for big-Harted laughs: Kevin versus a deluxe Swedish shower, Kevin having to say “penis,” Kevin aggressively creeping on a hot physical trainer (Golshifteh Farahani) like she was Salma Hayek at the 2015 Golden Globes. But for the most part, the star is more subdued than usual and aiming to hit deeper notes — call it Hart-felt. Only the material itself couldn’t be more pat or predictable, hitting every sentimental beat with a Mjölnir-strength mallet and leaning heavily on a rote dynamic of cultured cranky rich guy meets street-smart hustler. (One has never been to the opera or driven a Jaguar! And one has never listened to Aretha Franklin or smoked kush!) Every so often, Hart and Cranston seem to connect for a scene or three — there’s a wonderful sequence in which the two men get stoned and order hot dogs at a Gray’s Papaya that you wish was longer. But the chemistry between the two leads comes and goes at random, two flints being struck against each other and only occasionally producing sparks. Half of the time, you find yourself paying more attention to Nicole Kidman’s huffier-than-thou assistant, hoping that the actress will start upstaging her fellow stars and just go full well-I-never! Margaret Dumont.
(This is the part of the review where we mention that Neil Burger, the filmmaker behind The Ilusionist, Limitless and Divergent, is the director here, and that Jon Hartmere, who wrote for the reboot of TV’s The Electric Company, penned the script. There’s little else to say about either other than acknowledging their part in the proceedings.)
And even though you know The Upside is not the kind of movie that will untangle stuff as complicated as class and race despite the storyline, it’s still a disappointment to see the movie treat those elements with such superficiality. To be fair, when you’re so busy flattering your audience’s sensibilities rather than pushing them in any given direction, there’s not much time for the heavy stuff — just ask Green Book. Which brings back to the subject of coincidental timing. The movie has the bad luck of coming out at the end of Hart’s less-than-ideal news cycle/patience-testing endless apology tour, and the good fortune of hitting theaters just as another facile look at the subject of cultural divisions in America is causing waves and Oscar chatter. You could see people jonesing for more of that glossed-over feeling gravitating toward The Upside. But regardless, this is a movie that deserves to sink on its own without bad press or parallel can’t-we-just-get-along pablum in theaters. It’s a mediocrity no matter when you release it.