Unlikely Pairing Has Enriching Upside
Neil Burger’s 2017 comedy-drama film The Upside stars Bryan Cranston as wealthy quadraplegic Phillip Lacasse, and Kevin Hart as Dell Scott, his reluctant ex-con caregiver. They eventually become friends and have a positive effect on
Dell and Phillip meet when Phillip holds interviews for a caregiver or “life auxiliary”; Dell barges in and just wants a signature to show his parole officer he’s looking for work (with no intention of actually doing the job), but ends up accepting the job for real. They start out rocky, with Dell not knowing what the “life auxiliary” position he’s applying for even is. Phillip’s business manager Yvonne (Nicole Kidman) has him on a three-strikes system, and he quickly racks up two strikes.
Dell’s trying to get back in the good graces of his estranged wife Latrice (Aja Naomi King) and son Anthony (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), but it doesn’t come easy. He saves Phillip’s life despite knowing of his Do Not Resuscitate order. They take a trip into the city, slowly bond and rub off on each other; Dell even tries his hand at modern art. There’s a nice scene where a hot dog vendor asks Dell if Phillip wants to order anything, and Dell says to ask Phillip directly; I’ve never experienced that myself, but I can see it actually happening.
When Phillip’s upset because Yvonne threw him a surprise birthday party without asking (he says that he can’t control much, but what he can control is what he does with his time and who he spends it with), he has Dell break some of the gifts for him; he calms down, they go back to the party, and Dell livens it up.
After finding out that Phillip’s in an epistolary relationship with a woman named Lily (Juliana Margulies), Dell gets them to meet at a restaurant. They talk for a while, but Lily ends up friendzoning him because the whole situation is just awkward. Phillip feels like they shouldn’t have met in person. He drives off, accidentally spills a waiter’s hot coffee on himself, and tries to tell them he can’t feel it when they profusely apologize and make a scene. Phillip and Dell talk about rejection. Phillip says he never should’ve hired Dell, because he was the least qualified applicant, but Dell shoots back, “I’m still here, aren’t I? I think I was the most qualified.” Dell says that all he did was call Lily, Phillip was the one who chose to speak to her. Phillip wanted to engage Lily on his terms, not anyone else’s. Dell asks if Phillip’s moving forward with life like he is, and Phillip fires him. Dell uses a $50k check he’d gotten for a painting to buy a house for Latrice and Anthony—their relationship isn’t perfect, but it’s getting better. While Dell’s working at an auto garage making wheelchairs, Phillip’s physical therapist Maggie (Golshifteh Farahani) comes up and says that Phillip’s in bad shape, pushing everyone away, and that Dell’s basically the only one who can help. That night, Dell comes to see Phillip and convinces him to drive off into the countryside with him. They arrive at a surprise adaptive paragliding appointment Dell had set up earlier, and Phillip gets an initially-reluctant Dell to join him. Dell reunites Phillip with Yvonne, then heads home while Phillip and Yvonne go out paragliding. The text-only epilogue says “Phillip and Dell remain friends to this day.”
The dynamic between Dell and Phillip has something like the inverse of an "inspiration porn" dynamic—Phillip leaves his mark on Dell, in addition to Dell changing Phillip’s negative attitude on life. Dell at first seems like a stereotypical Black ex-con character (getting pulled over, stealing a book, neglecting responsibilities to his son and ex-wife), but he cares for his family and is trying to turn over a new leaf (he refuses an offer to get back with a gang and is
willing to look for work for Latrice and Anthony’s sakes, and decides to return a book he stole from Phillip). The movie doesn’t shy away from mentioning the intimate parts of being a caregiver (such as catheter insertion/removal); I think Hollywood tends to gloss over the day-to-day lives of people with disabilities, even in buddy movies, but not this movie. I liked the slow, believable bonding between Dell & Phillip, ending with Phillip playing opera sung by Aretha Franklin on the radio, combining his & Dell’s tastes in music.
There are several good quotes sprinkled throughout the film related to positive thinking. Early on, one of the interviewees says, “I don’t see ‘disability’. I see ‘this ability’.” Another tells Phillip, “The way I look at it, it’s not what’s been taken from you, it’s what you’ve been given.”
When Phillip expresses doubt that Lily will like him (because of the chair), Yvonne says “smart women care about what’s up here [the mind] and in here [the heart]. That’s what’s gonna move the right woman, not your hands.”
The trailers gave me the initial impression that the film would objectify Phillip, using him as an object for Dell’s character development. Even though that doesn’t happen, the plot is somewhat predictable; I suspected that Lily would reject Phillip, because anything else would be a missed opportunity for drama and conflict.
On a surface level, Dell’s similar to the trope of a side character who comes up to the protagonist and dispenses deep spiritual wisdom or otherwise enriches their lives, then exits stage left, but a deeper look shows that’s not the case, at least in my opinion. The way I saw it, Dell had those impacts on Phillip (livening up Phillip’s party, helping him rediscover his lost joie de vivre, getting him to meet with Lily), but it was a two-way street and Phillip helped Dell out in the same way (giving him advice to develop his business idea, expanding his interests
to include opera and modern art); rather than either of them exiting stage left, they, as the film’s epilogue says, “remain friends to this day.”
I give The Upside a 4/5 for the story, 5/5 for the acting overall, and 5/5 for Cranston & Hart’s chemistry. If you’re looking for a story of two clashing people who enrich each other’s lives, give The Upside a shot.