In the midst of the Oscars host kerfuffle, it has likely escaped your attention that Kevin Hart is in a movie playing a wisecracking ex-convict who becomes unlikely best friends with a millionaire quadriplegic.
In fact, it is based on the true story of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and Abdel Sellou (names changed to Phillip Lacasse and Dell Scott in the film, played by Bryan Cranston and Hart, respectively) and adapted from the 2012 French film Les Intouchables. It also is perfectly fine.
It’s the kind of movie that is exactly what it purports to be. Does the trailer look like this is going to be an emotionally manipulative feel-good drama? Well, that’s what it is, and Hart does a solid job in it. Add a scene in which someone folds a pizza in half and eats it and it might just win next year’s Golden Globe.
If it wasn’t inspired by a real relationship, the plot would read as if manufactured by some cynical Hollywood executive to pander to the particular audience that eats this kind of anodyne tale up.
Hart’s Dell doesn’t realize he’s at an interview to be Cranston’s Phillip’s “life auxiliary”—the person who bathes, feeds, and chauffeurs the disabled man around—but his inappropriate, free-wheeling demeanor tickles the millionaire and he hires him. Over the next two hours, the two develop a bond that mystifies everyone close to them. The question isn’t who saves who. Would you believe they save each other? Nicole Kidman co-stars.
If you’re wondering why Kevin Hart is addressing the Oscars controversy now, the fact that he has a wide-release film to promote should answer that.
(A direct message to underneath that rock you may live under: Hart was named host of this year’s Oscars, but resigned in the midst of backlash over past homophobic tweets and jokes. The Academy asked him to apologize, and he refused, incorrectly stating that he had apologized before. He played martyr while rehashing the ordeal to Ellen DeGeneres on her talk show, and DeGeneres forgave him, imploring the Academy to take him back. This infuriated the LGBT community who noted that he still had not officially apologized or expressed growth. This week, he apologized formally on a podcast and said for once and for all he won’t host. That was exhausting.)
And now, because The Upside is being released so closely timed to the whole controversy, the film and its box-office performance is going to be used as a litmus test for how the country feels about Hart and the entire conversation about homophobia, liability, and atonement. That is, of course, ridiculous. It is a mid-budget, January drama, wide release that, even at the peak of Hart’s popularity, was never going to make waves beyond softly introducing the comedian as a “serious actor.”
Hart acquits himself adequately by that regard, but it’s of no import now. Whether The Upside makes a billion dollars this weekend or makes five, the tallies will be served as evidence for whatever point a respective person wants to make about Hart’s previous comments and how they should affect his career. The season’s most inoffensive movie is now a lightning rod. Buying a ticket to it is now some sort of political act.
Likewise, there will be parsing of particular scenes to make the argument for or against Hart’s character. It’s unfortunate that one of the film’s biggest comedy set pieces sees Dell creeped out by and unable to say the word “penis,” while struggling to overcome his disgust over touching Phillip’s member to change his catheter.
The scene itself is certainly emblematic of an institutionalized cavalier attitude towards gay-panic comedy that grazes at the expense of the LGBT community, but it’s merely another example of that before it is an indictment of Hart’s own views. Naturally, there was more riotous laughter at this during the screening I attended than any other moment in the movie.
That’s the thing, though. That’s exactly the sensibility this film is being pitched to, and was meant to serve as a test for just how broad Hart’s appeal is. His movies already have an enviable average domestic gross of over $80 million, according to Box Office Mojo, with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle taking in nearly a billion dollars worldwide.
It’s that mainstream success that made Hart a desirable candidate for the Oscars gig. In tandem with the release of The Upside, this was supposed to a finite moment in time that propelled Hart to a next level of celebrity. Now, because of the drama surrounding Hart, the film is more vulnerable to snickering over its premise and heartwarming intentions than it would have been before.
It would be easy to trash the film, given its tone and especially its star, but that would be lazy, and The Upside truthfully doesn’t deserve it. It may be a patchwork quilt of clichés, but there is a tried and true audience notoriously desperate to curl up in just that. Not all paint-by-number films manage to color within the lines.
What’s more interesting is what the film was supposed to mean for Kevin Hart’s career, and what happens now.
The sad truth is, there will come a point when most, if not all, people forget about this whole ordeal. We tend to move on from things like this in increasingly short amounts of time. The Upside should settle whether that amount of time is longer than a month.