It’s getting harder to remember the time when Bryan Cranston mainly was known as the frequently flummoxed father on “Malcolm in the Middle.”
Though it doesn’t always happen for actors principally seen in one way, Cranston has gotten to display his versatility in many other projects – thanks mainly to the huge image overhaul he was permitted by the makers of “Breaking Bad” when he was cast as Walter White in that milestone cable series.
While he’s currently displaying that range again as television newsman Howard Beale in the Broadway staging of “Network,” he also gets to do it in “The Upside,” an Americanization of the much-lauded French film “Les Intouchables.” The seriocomic picture makes Cranston and stand-up-comedy veteran Kevin Hart an unlikely acting team, but their differences are precisely the reasons the movie works.
Cranston plays a rich businessman left quadriplegic by a hang-gliding accident, while Hart plays a parolee who needs gainful employment … which brings him to the home of the Cranston character, where the chip on Hart’s shoulder almost prevents him from taking a job that will turn out to be life-changing for both men.
As much as that may sound like a predictable progression for “The Upside” to take, it’s very much to the credit of both central performers that it never becomes cloying nor trite. They maintain a certain edge that keeps it fascinating to watch them play off each other, and while Nicole Kidman also is present as Cranston’s assistant, the picture clearly belongs to the men.
Not surprisingly, Cranston has the bigger challenge, since he has to convey everything without making full use of his usually animated physical being. His alter ego’s condition leaves him to convey everything facially and vocally, and if he wanted to put himself to the test that way, he surely does here.
Director Neil Burger (“Limitless”) appears to leave Cranston and Hart largely to their own inventions, which is a smart idea. He knows he has two talents confident in what they bring, and though they have to adhere to certain turns in the script, they pretty much do what they’re expected to do here. Which is not a bad thing.
There can be an upside, indeed, to putting polar opposites together on the screen. As the current gatekeepers of that theory, Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart confirm that it’s still quite valid.