THE UPSIDE (2019)

January 11, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Frequent movie goers often complain about the lack of originality in American movies. It sometimes seems as if most are sequels, remakes or reboots, or simply pulled from the panels of a comic book. There is another source that is particularly irksome to yours truly, and that’s the Americanization of an outstanding film from another country – World Cinema, if you will. Seven plus years ago, while watching the crowd-pleasing (though not so critically acclaimed) and exceptionally performed 2011 French film THE INTOUCHABLES, there was little doubt that it would, at some point, be subjected to an American “enhancement”. Sure enough, director Neil Burger (THE ILLUSIONIST) perfectly captures why this transition is sometimes so painful to see.

Based on a true story, filthy rich quadriplegic widower Phillip Lacasse is played by Bryan Cranston, while Nicole Kidman (her 4th film in 8 weeks) plays Yvonne, Phillip’s wound-too-tight, ultra-loyal chief of staff (she handles his many business affairs and calendar) with an obvious ulterior motive. Kevin Hart (he of recent Oscar-hosting drama) plays Dell, an unemployed ex-con street hustler. While searching for employment to appease his Parole Officer, Dell stumbles into a Park Avenue penthouse where Phillip and Yvonne are conducting interviews for a full-time caregiver to Phillip. Though he is woefully unqualified, and Yvonne protests mightily, Phillip chooses Dell. The undercurrent here is that Dell’s self-centeredness corresponds nicely to Phillip’s DNR and lack of will to live since his wife’s death from cancer.

The opening sequence has Dell racing through downtown, evading police, while driving a Ferrari with Phillip in the passenger seat. This is followed by a promising “6 months earlier” flashback introducing us to Dell’s ex-wife (Aja Naomi King) and their teenage son Anthony (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), both of whom are fed up with the lack of support and trustworthiness of Dell. Basically, Dell is a deadbeat dad with little ambition – other than to avoid returning to prison.

The tone of the film changes once Dell has the job as Phillip’s carer. The bulk of the remaining run time (which is 20 minutes too long) becomes a comedy skit showcasing the punchlines of Kevin Hart. Mind you, the full house I watched the screening with seemed to love every bit, as laughter filled the theatre. For me, I could only long for the soul and spirit of that beloved French film from years ago … and the amazing chemistry between the charismatic Omar Sy and the talented Francois Cluzet. This version isn’t about chemistry – it’s about comic timing. The only real exception to that is a terrific and psychologically deep scene with Julianna Margulies playing Phillip’s pen pal, as they meet for the first time over lunch. The scene is played beautifully, but is a complete tonal change from what comes before and after. Contrasting this scene with Kevin Hart’s over-the-top antics in the high-tech shower, magnifies the contrast in concepts.

Jon Hartmere is credited with the screenplay based on the original film’s screenplay by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache. For some reason, Phillip Pozzo di Borgo’s autobiography doesn’t make the credits for this version. A bit more attention to Dell’s ex and son could have worked to humanize him, and soften the caricature on display. This comes across as an interracial odd-fellow buddy flick, where yet another black man (often in a subservient role) rescues an entitled white person (even if they’re disabled) from lack of hope and leads them to a life worth living. Is it possible to make a movie based on race and class, and even romance, and still offer no real insight? Apparently the answer is yes, if one chooses to go for easy laughs. Perhaps you’ll join the audience in rolling along with Dell’s first trip to the opera, or the disrespect to art collectors – or that seemingly never-ending catheter scene. Or perhaps you can be persuaded to track down THE INTOUCHABLES for a more emotional and inspirational telling of this story.

***NOTE: I should also mention that one of my Top 5 movies of 2018 has already been targeted for an American remake starring Jake Gyllenhaal.  Boo. Hiss.

watch the trailer:

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THE WEDDING RINGER (2015)

February 14, 2015

wedding ringer Greetings again from the darkness. The only real determination of success for a comedy … does it make you laugh? If it makes you laugh, the movie has served its purpose for you. These movies are made for audiences, not film critics, which is why so few mainstream comedies play the film festival circuit.

Comedian Kevin Hart has seemingly been EVERYWHERE the past five years. He is funny, hard-working and talented. Unfortunately, most of his film projects are elevated by his talent rather than the other way around. This first feature film from director and co-writer Jeremy Garelick has an interesting premise … a much better premise than HITCH … and benefits from an on screen connection between Hart and Josh Gad, despite scene after scene taking the cheap laugh rather than the smart one.

Gad plays Doug, a socially inept nice guy who is marrying well above his pay grade. Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting (“The Big Bang Theory“) plays his fiancé – the rich girl forcing Doug to come up with 7 groomsmen for their wedding. Since poor Doug has no real friends, he jumps at the chance to capitalize on the services of Hart’s Best Man, Inc. Evidently there are so many men without friends that it’s necessary to have a business of best men and groomsmen-for-hire.

There is nothing subtle or smart about the approach here, and the story line and ending are absolutely predictable if you watch the two minute trailer. Still, there are some very funny moments courtesy of Hart and Gad, and my guess is most viewers will enjoy a few laughs, even if they forget most of this once they leave the theatre.

Supporting work is provided by Ken Howard, an on-fire Cloris Leachman, Mimi Rogers, Jorge Garcia and Josh Peck. Olivia Thirlby (Juno) plays sister to the bride, and it’s yet another example of a film wasting the talent of this terrific actress. Why is she always the friend, the sister or some other second fiddle role? In a bizarre football sequence, there are cameos from Joe Namath, Ed “Too Tall” Jones and John Riggins. Where the film missed a huge opportunity was in the casting of the “groomsmen”.  Think back to Michael Keaton’s The Dream Team (1989) where Christopher Lloyd, Peter Boyle and Stephen Furst contributed laughter, rather than just the absurdity we get here from the groomsmen.

The film is content hanging out in the middle as a no-apologies mainstream comedy, and has no aspiration for comedic greatness, or social commentary on the differing ideas of friendship between men and women. Still, the moments of laughter courtesy of Hart and Gad prove that making people laugh is a valuable talent, and laughter is good medicine … no matter how short-lived.

watch the trailer: