In the odd-couple dramedy The Upside, Bryan Cranston portrays Phillip, a quadriplegic billionaire and grieving widower who has lost the use of his limbs — along with the will to live — in a freak paragliding accident. Kevin Hart plays his startlingly underqualified caretaker, Dell: a paroled convict/deadbeat dad with whom the rich man enters into the unlikeliest of bromances. While Dell jolts Phil from the sterile misery of his Upper East Side penthouse, plying him with marijuana, soft-serve ice cream, and Aretha Franklin tunes, Phil helps Dell get his life on track, providing financial stability and awakening latent career ambitions (he also lets Dell rip around Brooklyn in his Ferrari).
A remake of the French smash hit The Intouchables, the based-on-a-true-story film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017 to a spate of positive reviews, showcasing genuine chemistry between its leads as well as what can be fairly described as the most nuanced and least manic performance of Hart’s career. “Is The Upside Kevin Hart’s Oscar Movie?” Vanity Fair asked out of Toronto.
But over the 16 months since its debut on the prestige-film circuit, The Upside has faced much dysfunction. Originally set for release in March 2018 by the Weinstein Company, the movie would go on to become Harvey Weinstein’s final failed attempt at an Academy Award. It was forced into distribution limbo for nearly a year while Weinstein faced a cascading series of rape and sexual-misconduct allegations that ultimately helped bankrupt TWC. Then, after finally exiting the Weinstein roster in August, The Upside landed a distribution deal with STX Entertainment for a January 11 release.
But its bumpy journey to the screen still wasn’t over. Last month, Hart was announced as the host of this year’s Oscars broadcast, providing a welcome dose of publicity for the beleaguered movie. That is, until a series of homophobic tweets the 39-year-old comedian had posted years earlier upended Hart’s nice-guy reputation, opening him up to derision and criticism across social media.
“It’s like a roller-coaster ride, right?” says Upside producer Jason Blumenthal. “During production, the whole thing was going down on the roller coaster — the most fun part. Then I sat upside down at the top of the roller coaster with blood rushing to my head, waiting for somebody to get me down for an entire year.”
In 2011, after The Intouchables became the third highest-grossing film in French history (earning $400 million worldwide, winning a raft of César Awards including Best Film and voted “cultural event of the year” in a BVA survey conducted by Fnac), the Weinstein Company bought its English-language-remake rights and set about putting the project together. Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, A Simple Favor) was brought in as director. Colin Firth circled the role of Phillip and Jamie Foxx, Idris Elba, Chris Tucker, and Chris Rock were all variously considered to portray Dell. In 2013, Feig dropped out and was eventually replaced by Neil Burger (Divergent, 2011’s Limitless). The following year, Hart accepted a drastic reduction of his usual eight-figure salary in a bid to display some dramatic-acting range. “Kevin wanted to show the real side of Kevin: to make you laugh and make you think and make you feel,” says Blumenthal, who has produced such hit movies as The Pursuit of Happyness, and The Equalizer. “Because he believed in himself enough to know, ‘Listen, I don’t have to do this. I can go make these comedies for the next 20 years.’ He told me he needed to do it.”
In 2016 Cranston boarded the project with Nicole Kidman accepting the role of Yvonne, the billionaire’s no-nonsense, Harvard-educated executive assistant. And from January to April 2017, filming took place in and around Philadelphia. The movie came in on time and under budget. Hart deeply impressed Cranston with his preparation and seriousness of intent, according to those on set. And after the film scored a 95 percent approval rating at a New York City test screening, Weinstein began to feel optimistic The Upside had the potential to please crowds and critics alike.
Blumenthal’s production company Escape Artists had made the 2015 Jake Gyllenhaal–starring boxing drama Southpaw for the Weinstein Company and lobbied to produce The Upside, convinced of its commerciality. According to the producer, Harvey’s marketing plan was always to position the drama-comedy for an awards run to generate word-of-mouth buzz; he maneuvered to premiere it in Toronto specifically to draft off of the festival’s windfall of free publicity.
Problem was, however, that Hart had a competing movie also coming out in the thick of awards season — Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle — and his reported $10 million payday for that December film contractually barred him from promoting any other movie for six weeks on either side of Jumanji’s release. Undaunted, Weinstein remained convinced he could use his signature rage and force of will to cajole its distributor Sony into letting the star attend The Upside premiere. “We said, ‘Harvey, Sony has locked him up. They are not going to allow Kevin to have a movie released or promote that movie before Jumanji. They’ve made it very clear and they’ve paid for it,’” Blumenthal recalls. “And Harvey’s response was, ‘Fuck ‘em. Okay? Don’t worry. We’ll be fine.’ Because every single time before that, Harvey was able to strong-arm and get his way, right? At one point, we just were begging [Sony chairman] Tom Rothman to let us release the movie on two screens just to qualify for the Golden Globes.”
Moreover, the TWC co-chairman expected Hart to personally persuade the Sony chairman to grant the film a limited theatrical run before Jumanji’s wide release rollout — an ask the comedian wasn’t prepared to make. “So, Harvey still thought, ‘Fuck it. I’ll call their bluff. I’ll book it at Toronto. We’ll get Nicole there. We’ll get Bryan there. If Kevin doesn’t show up, he’s an idiot.’ How could he not come to Toronto? This is the best film he’s ever been in, maybe ever will be in. Quite frankly, he didn’t show up. And he didn’t show up because Sony forbid him to show up.” (On the day of The Upside’s premiere, Hart was in Houston, Texas, volunteering at a local food bank and helping survivors of Hurricane Harvey.)
Then, less than a month after the film’s public unveiling, twin Harvey bombshells obliterated any further awards-push conversation — also creating deep uncertainty as to whether The Upside would be released at all. On October 5, the New York Times published an article by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey detailing decades of alleged sexual misconduct by Weinstein and the hush-money payoffs the mogul allegedly made to his accusers. On October 10, The New Yorker published a story by Ronan Farrow featuring testimony from multiple women, including several actresses who say Weinstein raped them or forced them into uncomfortable sexual situations. (More than 80 women have accused Weinstein of sexual mistreatment but he has plead not guilty to all charges against him.) “Now Harvey is Osama bin Laden — and he’s in in charge of my movie!” remembers Blumenthal. “We were inextricably linked because we were the last movie he actually physically made.”
After the Oscar-winning mogul was fired from the mini-major studio he co-founded, and with the Weinstein Company increasingly reliant on emergency injections of cash to continue its day-to-day operations, the Upside producers began to quietly back-channel with executives at other major studios, screening the film around Hollywood to land a new distribution deal. But as one of four remaining films in the TWC release queue — and arguably the only one with any real commercial potential — Weinstein executives were reluctant to release The Upside from its agreement. “It’s like, ‘Are they going to declare bankruptcy or are they not going to declare bankruptcy?’ There was so much uncertainty at that time. There was a lot of head scratching and hand grinding about what was going to happen to TWC,” Blumenthal says. “We knew that we were the only asset that had any value that was left in their pipeline. The only leverage they had was to say to someone, ‘If you want The Upside, you’ve got to take these other three pieces of shit.’ So it wasn’t easy.”
Finally driven into bankruptcy last July, the Texas private-equity firm Lantern Capital bought TWC’s assets (including Quentin Tarantino’s later films such as Inglourious Basterds and The Hateful Eight, a library of TV shows including Project Runway and Jennifer Lopez: Dance Again and such Oscar-winning films as The King’s Speech) for $289 million. And a month later, STX Entertainment swooped in to rescue The Upside from distribution oblivion.
“This is a hilariously funny and emotionally affecting film,” STX Films chairman Adam Fogelson said in a statement. “It evokes elements of films like Trading Places and Scent of a Woman, while still being completely fresh with characters that are as memorable as they are hysterical.”
In an early December Instagram post, Hart announced he had been selected to host the 2019 Oscars — the fruition of what he described as “a goal on my list for a long time.” The news was greeted with nothing short of jubilation by the Upside producers. “I’m like, ‘What? Oh, my God. Finally, a win for The Upside. Finally, some upside for The Upside. This is amazing!’ Even though we’re going to come out before the Academy Awards, this is unbelievable. Not only is he being recognized as an entertainer and someone who is at the top of his field but that’s only going to get more people to see my movie,” says Blumenthal.
But when a series of homophobic tweets Hart had posted to his official Twitter account around 2009 to 2010 were uncovered by journalists just days later, online backlash against the prolific actor-comedian came swift and hard. Making matters worse, Hart initially refused to apologize. “So I just got a call from the Academy, and that call basically said, ‘Kevin, apologize for your tweets of old, or we’re going to have to move on and find another host,” he said in an Instagram video. “I chose to pass. I passed on the apology. The reason I passed is because I’ve addressed this several times.” (On December 7 he officially stepped down from hosting the Academy Awards and on a Wednesday appearance on Good Morning America, Hart said he was done apologizing for the tweets. “I’m over it,” he said.)
For his part, Blumenthal immediately registered that decision’s impact on the film’s bottom line. For all of Hart’s staggering social-media clout, personal popularity, and star power, the outcry surrounding his Oscar-hosting hiring and recusal has effectively overshadowed his ability to promote The Upside. “Now they’re swarming after Kevin like it’s a zombie apocalypse,” Blumenthal says. “Now I’ve got flashbacks to Harvey being the most hated man in the world. Kevin, who is the most likable guy in the world, is now somehow the most hated guy too? It just happened so quickly that I literally needed a neck brace. It was fucking whiplash all over again.”
I ask the producer if there is a takeaway from the film’s surreal ordeal. Some kind of teachable moment. Some received wisdom about Hollywood? In a word: no. “Behind the monitor on set on The Upside was one of the best experiences I ever had. Three of the best actors between Nicole, Kevin, and Bryan. An amazing working relationship with Neil Burger. The studio stuff — they left me alone because we had it all on; we had a great script,” he says. “That wasn’t the problem. The problem was, after we yelled ‘That’s a wrap,’ from that moment on, everything turned into a nightmare.”