By Elaine Hegwood-Bowen, MSJ
Although the premise is based upon a white patriarchal/Black caregiver construct, “The Upside” is a heartwarming film. Based on a true story, the film presents a boss/employee relationship where both parties learn something new. “The Upside” stars “Breaking Bad’s” Bryan Cranston as Phillip Lacasse, a billionaire quadriplegic, and comedian and actor Kevin Hart as his new caregiver named Dell Scott. In the film Dell is called a “life auxiliary,” as opposed to a caregiver. Phillip can only move his neck and relies upon Dell for everything.
“The Upside” is actually a remake of a 2011 French film called “The Intouchables,” which starred French actors François Cluzet as the rich aristocrat and Omar Sy as the life auxiliary.
Dell has recently been released from prison, has a girlfriend and a teen son to provide for and has been ordered by his parole officer to get three signatures on a job search form or be in violation of his parole. By some fluke, he ends up in Phillip’s penthouse apartment, believing that he is applying for a janitorial gig. He somehow wins Phillip over—much to the chagrin of Phillip’s executive assistant Yvonne, played by Nicole Kidman. Yvonne doesn’t trust Dell and resents the fact that Phillip has chosen an unkempt looking, streetwise Black man to be his companion.
But Dell and Phillip click, and this relationship flourishes and benefits both parties. Dell develops an affinity for the opera, and Phillip develops an appreciation for Aretha Franklin’s music. Dell gets Phillip to come out of his shell, while enjoying driving him around in his Porsche—which is just one of his luxury cars—as opposed to being transported in a passenger van. The two enjoy jokes together. Phillip encourages Dell to tap into his soul and figure out a talent or niche that he enjoys that can bring him a better livelihood than being a life auxiliary (although working for Phillip nets Dell about $2600 a week).
While Hart does bring a bit of levity to the serious complications of a person being confined to a wheelchair—not able to do anything for himself but speak—there are numerous heartfelt, endearing moments shared between the two men. Dell gets a whiff of the good life, and Phillip gets to enjoy simple things like eating an ice cream cone and enjoying hot dogs at a local deli—while also getting a glimpse of a housing project and how the less fortunate live. Phillip also gains a new appreciation for life, stops grieving his late wife’s death and finds that a new love was right in his face all the time.
As for Dell, he learns that he is not such a bad artist, is mesmerized while attending what I believe is the opera “The Magic Flute,” because a Black woman, opera singer Indra A. Thomas, is delivering an “edge-of-the seat” aria “Queen of the Night,” and he is able to buy his girlfriend and son a house of their own.
There is much Aretha infused throughout the film—even a recording of an awesome rendition of the late opera great’s Luciano Pavarotti’s trademark aria “Nessun Dorma,” when she promptly filled in sharing her operatic chops when he couldn’t perform during the 1998 Grammy awards show.
Given that Hart has been the subject of much flak for past homophobic jokes, which compelled him to step down from the hosting gig for the upcoming Academy Awards presentation, and the delay in the release of this film (which was originally connected to the embattled, sexual-misconduct-charged Harvey Weinstein and his company) Hart has won at the box office. “The Upside” reportedly doubled industry expectations with a $19.5 million U.S. first weekend opening. The film, which is dedicated to the memory of Aretha Franklin, is playing in theaters everywhere.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader Newspaper. She is also the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago.”