The Upside premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, and didn't receive commercial release in the United States until January 2019 (the demise of The Weinstein Company factored into this). That's not "commercial release following an Oscar-qualifying run in one Los Angeles theater." That's commercial release. There's such a thing as a distributor knowing that it has a dog that won't possibly get the awards attention that was the only reason the film was ever made, and then there's knowing it so hard as to not even bother pretending; a January release for a film like this is the closest a company can possibly come to saying "please, don't pay any attention to this" without going straight to VOD.

The film is the long-gestating result of an attempt to remake the 2011 French blockbuster Intouchables that started almost the second that film came out. That it took so long to make it isn't quite as big a tell as its delayed release - movies can have production problems - but it feels like a Development Hell property. The screenplay, which somehow has only one credited writer in the form of Jon Hartmere, is a barely legible assemblage of incidents that only somewhat resemble a story; certainly, it lacks any actual development across it scenes, or any indication of causality to speak of. The ending, in particular, feels like the absolute worst sort of arbitrary cutting-off point, offering closure almost solely because end credits offer a kind of Pavlovian response where we assume that the movie must have resolved, or we would still be watching it. It doesn't suggest that anybody chose to end it there; it's more like they ended there because they ran out of energy trying to cobble together something better.

The story (ultimately derived from something that happened in reality, though few if any details remain of the true events) is something of a buddy dramedy, centering on Dell Scott (Kevin Hart), a recently-released ex-convict with a resentful ex and a child who hates him, and Philip Lacasse (Bryan Cranston), a widowed financial analyst who is paralyzed from the neck down as a result of a paragliding analyst. Their paths cross when Dell goes up the wrong elevator, and instead of interviewing for a janitorial position, finds himself accepting the position as Philip's "life auxiliary", an all-purpose aide and helpmeet; this was not because Philip thought Dell was the best applicant, or because Dell wanted the position so bad that he won the other man over, but because Philip is an irritable crab ass who wanted to do something that would irritate Yvonne Pendleton (Nicole Kidman), who runs of all his business matters and is the solitary reason that he is alive right not, against his will.

By the time the film's unhurried 126 minutes are over, obviously Philip will be softened and ready to enjoy life, thanks to Dell's magical presence in his life; and obviously, Dell will have patched things up with his son, ceasing to be so quick to petulant self-pity, thanks to... I'm actually not sure. That's how crummy the writing is in The Upside: it can't even manage to get the tedious boilerplate right. Dell and Philip are objects to be moved through a standard plot form, not characters who change as a result of experiences.

Potentially, this could be compensated for by actors willing to go above and beyond the flatness of the writing, and The Upside has one. The problem is that the one it has is Kidman, whose work as the utter non-entity Yvonne is so thoughtful that it's kind of agonising to watch. The Upside has hit theaters concurrently with Destroyer, in which she gets a huge showcase role as an angry bad cop; hell, even in Aquaman, where she has barely little more than a cameo, she at least gets to wearing gaudy clothes and do fight scenes and intone cod-Shakespearean dialogue. In The Upside, she has exactly one task, to look at the protagonists with mild disapproval, and this would not be a test for a wooden stake with googly eyes on it, let alone an actor of Kidman's caliber. But she pours everything into her empty little reaction shots, carefully modulating her eyes and mouth to make sure we see every possible variation on mild disapproval. The film does not ask her to do this; it does not benefit from her having done this; it does not give her anything in return for her exemplary act of redemption But it's nice to have something to enjoy in the acting.

Because we sure don't get any such thing from the leads. Hart isn't especially terrible, and there's an inherent interest in seeing a movie star with such an incredibly well-defined persona perform a quasi-subversive variation on it. Dell is, like most Hart characters, a nervous fast-talker who uses words to get out of situations that his tiny body won't survive; like most Hart characters, the main thing that distinguishes one moment from another is how loud he's being at any moment. But there's a little bit of something there in watching this character played as a defeated sad-sack rather than a huckster; Kevin Hart look exhausted and dismal is brand new, and there's something about it that comes so close to working for the film that we might as well count it. Cranston, for his part is just plain bad. Film-breaking bad; Philip is the character who has to do the most changing, and Cranston only gives us two points of that arc: a grumpy rich asshole who feels like he wandered in from a Shirley Temple film, and the guy who laughs at Kevin Hart's jokes. If anything connects those points, Cranston has forgotten to work it out; Hartmere has certainly forgotten to write it, so the film loses out twice over.

To bring this trite non-story to life, director Neil Burger relies on his usual grab-bag of tricks (I am mildly chagrined to discover that not only does Burger have a distinctive style, but also that I was able to recognise it), encouraging the actors to keep pauses to an absolute minimum as they're filmed with glossy, digitally shined-up colors that make everything look like an advertising spread in a magazine. It looks like an Oscarbait character drama version of Limitless, as horrible as that is to consider, and it somehow took the great cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh to make it look like this. At any rate, the glossy, lifeless images match wellΒ  with the glossy, lifeless characters, whose personality traits and conflicts only barely manage to emerge at all. Dell's poverty, like Philip's quadriplegia, is just enough of a condition to get us through the third act; after that, the film lives and dies on watching Hart and Cranston snipe at each other, and with absolutely nothing given that sniping an actual framework, it turns out to be not nearly enough.