The Upside (2019) is, at times shot for shot, a remake of the wildly successful French film Intouchables (2011), itself a remake of the French documentary À la vie, à la mort (2003), about the quadriplegic Corsican businessman Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his Algerian caregiver, Abdel Sellou. Not only did Intouchables become the second-highest-grossing film of all time in France, 52 percent of voters in an Fnac poll deemed it the cultural event of the year. Across the English Channel, however, the film received a more mixed reception. Nigel Farndale wrote for the Telegraph, "The film . . . has been breaking box-office records in France and Germany, and one of the reasons seems to be that it gives the audience permission to laugh with, not at, people with disabilities." Anthony Quinn of the Independent, on the other hand, wondered, "Why has the world flipped for this movie? Maybe it's the fantasy it spins on racial/social/cultural mores, much as Driving Miss Daisy did 20-odd years ago—uptight rich white employer learns to love through black employee's life-force."
From its first moments The Upside works hard to dramatize the differences between black ex-con Dell Scott (Kevin Hart) and white billionaire businessman Phillip Lacasse (Bryan Cranston). Dell has recently been released from prison and must collect signatures to prove he's looking for work. Phillip is quadriplegic and must hire someone to assist him with daily tasks. Clearly apathetic, Dell mistakenly interviews to be a "life auxiliary" for Phillip, who hires him on the spot, much to the chagrin of Yvonne Pendleton (Nicole Kidman), Phillip's business manager. It quickly becomes clear that Phillip needs much more than someone to feed and bathe him. Although Dell rapidly earns Yvonne's disapproval through his tardiness and reluctance to perform medical tasks (there's an entire section about catheter insertion and manual evacuation), it's precisely Dell's penchant for rule breaking that attracts Phillip. As the film progresses, Dell gets Phillip high, hires sex workers to massage his ears (his only nonparalyzed erogenous zone), and lampoons the high-class conventions of Phillip's life (laughing during a production of Die Zauberflöte, starting a dance party at Phillip's staid surprise birthday party, scandalizing Phillip's rich neighbor, etc).
After learning of Phillip's epistolary relationship with a love interest, Lily (Julianna Margulies), whom he's never seen nor spoken to, Dell calls her against Phillip's will, though Phillip proceeds to leave her a message. They arrange to meet and while Lily initially seems comfortable with Phillip's condition, it quickly becomes apparent that it's too much for her, which provokes Phillip to angrily storm out of the restaurant, hitting a few diners and waiters in the process. The event sends Phillip into a tailspin, and he ends up firing Dell and driving away Yvonne, refusing to eat, and growing a "breakup beard." Eventually Maggie (Golshifteh Farahani), his physical therapist, comes to exhort Dell to rescue Phillip from his depressive episode. What follows is all fast cars and paragliding, an adrenaline junkie's wet dream—Phillip's paralysis need not prevent him from normative masculine risk-taking.
This trope of an African-American character whose primary narrative function is helping a white character is far from unique to The Upside. To use a term popularized by Spike Lee, these "Magical Negroes" often seem "to have an uncanny ability to say and do exactly what needs to be said or done in order to keep the story chugging along in the hero's favor," in the words of Salon's Matt Zoller Seitz. The adjective "magical" (or sometimes "mystical") is purposefully chosen: These characters often literally possess special powers. Consider Albert Lewis (Cuba Gooding Jr.), who serves as a spirit guide to Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams) in What Dreams May Come (1998), or Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) as the hotel cook who teaches Danny Torrance about "the shining" in the eponymous film (1980).
Although he doesn't have magical abilities, Dell might as well, given how keenly he's able to sense what Phillip needs even when he says the opposite (Phillip rebuffs Dell's initial offer to smoke weed only to request it from him directly later). Dell's sexuality also gradually rubs off on Phillip, distinguishing Dell from the usually sexless Magic Negro only by moving into the territory of another stereotype: the hypervirile black man. Dell openly hits on Maggie as soon as he meets her, and our own voyeuristic desires for Dell are satisfied during a lengthy scene in which he struggles with his high-tech, German-speaking shower. Dell's presence not only gets Phillip to escalate his relationship with Lily, but also brings the romantic arc to a close when Dell reenters at the end to save Phillip and redirect his affections towards the obviously interested Yvonne.
While Intouchables suffers from many similar problems, it also has a heart that makes it much more enjoyable to watch than its U.S. counterpart, and we're left to wonder why. The most optimistic answer would be that after decades of overuse we're beginning to grow weary of such racist caricatures. Let's hope that's true. v