The Upside, Remake of Hit French Comedy, in U.S. Theaters

The hit movie Intouchables was seen by 20 million people in French theaters in 2012, and a U.S. remake is set to be released this Friday. American critics are waiting to pounce, having already denounced the racial prejudices in the original film. The question is, will this comedy drama on the theme of disability win over American audiences?
Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston in The Upside. © David Lee/STXfilms

Do not mistake the French movie for anything to do with Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables. While the similar title may create confusion, Intouchables is a French film based on the true story of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, as recounted in his book, A Second Wind. Played by Francois Cluzet in the original movie, the tetraplegic aristocrat hires Driss (Omar Sy) as his home carer. The young man from the projects is of Senegalese descent, has rather unorthodox methods, and has just been released from prison. The movie goes on to portray the profound relationship that develops between the two seemingly opposed men.

“The name Intouchables is a reference to the Dalit, an ethnic group in India who are segregated from mainstream society, just like the two main characters,” said the directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano in 2012. “Driss is filled with vitality but he is Black, poor, and lives in the projects. His disability is purely social. In comparison, Philippe is a certain embodiment of privileged France. A vision of the country as rich, White, and yet paralyzed.” Drawing on this bodily parable, the original work offers a barrage of jokes about physical disabilities and problems of social integration to better deconstruct them.

Originally released in 2011, Intouchables is the second most successful French film in the United States after Luc Besson’s blockbuster Lucy. The triumph of this feel-good movie à la française immediately inspired producers to create a remake. Harvey Weinstein – the original film’s distributor – bought the U.S. remake rights. But after several failed attempts, filming only started in January 2017 directed by Neil Burger, the man behind the hugely successful movie Limitless.

The new version has largely kept the same storyline as the original but set it in New York City. Bryan Cranston, star of the series Breaking Bad, has replaced François Cluzet (Tell No One, Little White Lies, Irreplaceable) in the role of Phillip Lacasse, a Park Avenue billionaire confined to a wheelchair after a hang-gliding accident. Comedian Kevin Hart plays Dell, replacing Omar Sy (Jurassic World, Samba, Inferno). Having abandoned his life as a small-time crook, Dell is hired by Phillip to be his personal carer, supervised by Nicole Kidman who plays his assistant.

Bryan Cranston, Nicole Kidman, and Kevin Hart in The Upside. © David Lee/STXfilms

The Upside (Sous un autre jour in the French version) still falls into racial stereotyping – a Black, absent father and former crook giving a cultivated, wealthy, White man a new lease on life – which saw Intouchables heavily criticized when it was released in the United States. “Intouchables […] flings about the Uncle Tom racism one hopes has permanently exited American screens,” wrote film critic Jay Weyssberg in Variety in 2012. “Driss is treated as nothing but a performing monkey (with all the racist associations of such a term), teaching the stuck-up White folk how to get ‘down’ by replacing Vivaldi with ‘Boogie Wonderland’ and showing off his moves on the dance floor. The role is barely removed from the jolly house slave of yore, entertaining the master.”

As the French directors see things, this sort of accusation reflects the cultural divide between France and the United States: “The issue of race remains a touchy subject in the U.S.A., where Black-White relations are still subject to prejudice. From an American point of view, a movie is racist as soon as the roles of Black and White people are not interchangeable. It might seem indelicate, but it’s far from stupid!” For now The Upside is enjoying a more positive reception from critics due to its more tactful approach to the question of race, without however avoiding other social clichés, according to The Hollywood Reporter. But the result is still a highly comical movie, largely thanks to its excellent duo of leading actors.

Presented at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Upside should have been released last March, but the Weinstein scandal pushed it back. It is now set for release on January 11, 2019, by Lantern Entertainment, which acquired the Weinstein Company’s assets.

The French Comedies That Inspired Hollywood

Trois Hommes et un couffin (1985)
Three Men and a Baby (1987)

One of the most renowned remakes has to be that of Coline Serreau’s Trois Hommes et un couffin. Three long-term bachelors – played by Roland Giraud, Michel Boujenah, and André Dussolier – find themselves as acting fathers when a young woman leaves a newborn at their front door. In the U.S. remake, the trio of singletons is played by Ted Danson, Tom Selleck, and Steve Guttenberg, and directed by Leonard Nimoy. The movie was the biggest box-office success of 1987, even beating Fatal Attraction.

Boudu sauvé des eaux (1932)
Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986)

The major French classic Boudu sauvé des eaux was directed by Jean Renoir in 1932 and stars Michel Simon. Adapted from a play, Renoir’s comedy recounts the adventures of Boudu, a homeless man in Paris who, after being saved from drowning in the Seine by a kindly bookseller, wreaks havoc in the poor man’s family! Some 50 years later, the U.S. remake directed by Paul Mazursky sees Nick Nolte in the main role, this time rescued from a swimming pool in Los Angeles!

La Totale (1991)
True Lies (1994)

Another successful remake is that of Claude Zidi’s La Totale, adapted as True Lies with James Cameron directing. The movie is about a secret agent looking to win back his wife, who knows nothing of her husband’s job. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Paxton, and Jamie Lee Curtis replaced French actors Thierry Lhermitte, Michel Boujenah, and Miou-Miou. The U.S. version is more focused on the action scenes than the original, but is just as amusing.

Un éléphant ça trompe énormément (1976)
The Woman in Red (1984)

This is the story of four friends who never really grew up – despite almost being 40. Jean Rochefort, Guy Bedos, Claude Brasseur (who won a César for his performance) and Victor Lanoux are the leads in this cult comedy by Yves Robert. The remake by Gene Wilder (who also plays the main character) is well made, and owes part of its success to the soundtrack by Stevie Wonder including the hit “I Just Called to Say I Love You” (Oscar for Best Original Song).

Article published in the January 2019 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.