Episode 19: The Upside

Join Jill and Chris for an in-depth discussion of the new film The Upside starring Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart, and Nicole Kidman.

Episode 19: The Upside, Transcript

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Woman’s Voice: From DisArt, it’s DisTopia.

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Chris: Hi everybody. Welcome back to the DisTopia Podcast where we look at disability from the inside out. This is your host Chris Smit.

Jill: And Jill Vyn.

Chris: And we are trying something new, here. Recording on Skype and the reason we’re doing that is because we are, well, we’re in the depths of hell. Winter hell, that is. (laughs)

Jill: Yes, my son is very mad at me because I said he cannot go outside in the negative whatever temperature it is right now. 

Chris: Negative 3.

Jill: We’re in the comforts of our home. Negative 3? Okay, well. I’m the mean mom right now. But, so, instead, we’re recording a podcast which we, as you can already tell, is going to be unedited.

Chris: That’s right.

Jill: We’re just gonna roll with it. We’re gonna go with it. And we’re gonna to try this and we’re gonna release it and hope that it’s worth listening to.

Chris: That’s right. Well, and it will be worth listening to because we’re talking today about a really interesting film that has come out. Released on January 11, The Upside. We are interested, any really, anytime that disability enters the Hollywood film industry, we’re always interested and we, of course, have done some thinking about movies and quadriplegia before. In our 3rd episode we talked about Me Before You, but this film is a little different. It has a bit more of a pedigree, I think, and a little bit more for us to talk about. But it’s a good film on the whole. I think we’re liking it quite a bit, is that right?

Jill: Yeah, I thought it was pretty funny actually and I found myself laughing out loud in the theater a few times and thinking about some of the stereotypes and some of the themes that were running through it and there’s a lot to talk about.

Chris: Absolutely.

Jill: I thought maybe, you know. We thought maybe we should start with the synopsis. This is from Rotten Tomatoes so I’m just gonna read it for everybody. “Inspired by a true story, The Upside is a heartfelt comedy about a recently paroled ex-convict” Kevin Hart plays that person. His name is Dell. “who strikes up an unusual and unlikely friendship with a paralyzed billionaire who is played by Bryan Cranston. Directed by Neil Burger” or Berger

Chris: Burger…

Jill: and “Written by John Hartmere. The Upside is based on the hit 2011 French film, The Untouchables.”

Chris: That’s right. You haven’t seen that film. I have seen that film and, you know, the original Intouchables from 2011 is a bit different. It’s a French film which right away doesn’t fulfill some of the troupes or stereotypes of Hollywood films. And I think because of that there’s a little bit more depth in that French film; in the original film. 

Jill: Yeah, yeah. I’m sorry to interrupt, but I actually am curious to think about French culture versus American culture or North American culture, I should say. And as you talk about the film, I encourage you, if there’s anything that comes to mind with that in terms of disability, I don’t know, I haven’t studied that.

Chris: Yeah, I think, you know, disability rights in the U.S. is certainly a unique animal, you know, in the way that disability civil rights have worked out in that North American context. You know, often times people who talk about the differences between a sort of European system versus the U.S. system, right, we’re talking about a difference between socialized medicine and private medicine and so there’s certainly some things there that might pop up in our conversation. But there are certainly a lot of differences in the film and one of them and I think we ought to just jump right into it right away is some of the relationships that are portrayed in the film Upside, The Upside versus what’s not in The Intouchables and perhaps the most important scene that we’ve been talking about here on the podcast is this scene with Lily which really wasn’t part of the original film.

Jill: Yeah, so, Lily is… What we discover about Lily is that she’s a penpal. That Phil, the main character, has had for an extended period of time. And early on in the film he decides he doesn’t want to correspond with Lily for a period of time. And then once Dell, his caregiver, comes to be part of the picture over some time he begins to write her again. And through that ends up having a date with her at a restaurant.

Chris: Right. And that relationship or that scene in the restaurant, to me. And I’ve said this before to Jill, but this scene seems to be almost one of the hearts of the film. I think the way in which that relationship is portrayed seems to get to some of the ways in which Hollywood is trying to figure out disability, right. It’s certainly complex. It’s a very complex scene. You know, as Jill said, they have known each other only through love letters, or through letters or correspondence. They’re meeting each other for the first time. Uh Phil is…

Jill: Yeah, they talk about, did she Google him? Would she know that he’s a Disabled man? What would she know about him and on and on and all of the worries that come up with that, come along with that in his mind. I thought was really, funny. And as a female, of course she Googled him.

Chris: Yeah, yeah absolutely. (laughs)

Jill: Of course.

Chris: Yeah, yeah yeah absolutely. (laughs)

Jill: Yeah, but how it comes into his mind and shakes his confidence as a disabled person.

Chris: Yeah, that’s right, because by the time we get to that dinner, he’s had some very, I don’t know, he and Dell have had some real connection by that point. He’s beginning, I think, he’s beginning to see his disability as something that’s part of him and trying to figure out what that looks like and then beautiful Julianna Margulies shows up and, you know, she’s pretty confident at first. Right? She’s pretty confident in saying, “Well, Dell, you don’t have to stay and help him eat. I’ll help feed him.” You know, and jumps in with both feet, right, in this way that she’ll be okay with everything and then, in fact, is really interesting is the way that she talks about her own therapy.

Jill: To get ready for the date (laughs)

Chris: Yeah, yeah, yeah…

Jill: Because she Googled him (laughs) and how’s she going to get ready for this date and it seems like she thought that it was gonna be, or she had reservations, obviously, but by just jumping in like you said and feeding him and taking on that role and being in that position was something she could do. But, in fact, as time went on it didn’t work for her

Chris: It doesn’t work out. You know, the camera does a pretty good job of showing us her realization. There’s two shots, in particular. One in which she contemplates his hand which isn’t moving and then you remember the other part is that?

Jill: Yeah, where he spilled on himself? And you just zero in as if that you are looking through her eyes at these spots or the hand and it’s stopping her. I, mean, it’s just stopping her from engaging. So, it’s…it’s really interesting how, yes, it’s untold, unsaid things that are going through her head, possibly.

Chris: Right. Unsaid things and then but really a realization, I think. Or, at least a potential for realization that every relationship has to be based on knowing the needs of both people and really being able to live in those needs and think about those needs in a complex way. In the film, I think, does a pretty good job of saying, You know, in a real world setting, you know, this sort of ease of relationship takes some time. You know, it really takes some time and they don’t necessarily give each other that time.

Jill: No, they go into like a multi-course meal for the first date.

Chris: Right, right.

Jill: Like, who does that? Don’t you just start at a coffee shop. (both laugh) I mean, I don’t know. I haven’t dated for a long time but that’s what I think would be a little less intimidating. And we know people who are disabled whether physically or otherwise and how challenging dating is because you really have to find someone who’s gonna to be open to all of you and vice versa. Right, it’s not just Lily who’s deciding to be with him, he’s also deciding if he wants to be with her. But I don’t think the film really shows us that part where he is contemplating her as much as she is him.

Chris: Right, right. And so there’s this moment in the film and, again, I think one of the reasons we wanted to start with this conversation is that the life of a disabled man, especially a guy like him who’s a quadriplegic there’s some complexity that doesn’t always get translated into a movie and, you know, I’m bringing up this scene as one of my favorite because it actually did handle the complexity of it and did it pretty well. I mean there’s problems with the film, of course, and things we might be critical of and maybe we’ll talk about that. But, for the most part, this scene, it’s a good effort it seems to me.

Jill: Yeah, it is interesting. So is it encouraging or discouraging? If you look at that scene in isolation, 100% I’m discouraged.

Chris: Yeah.

Jill: Right? So, thank goodness there’s the rest of the film.

Chris: Yeah. Why are you discouraged?

Jill: I’m discouraged because she, because right away all she’s thinking about is all the “what ifs” and the…let me put this into different words. Maybe thinking too far down the line rather than just being in the moment.

Chris: Well, yeah, isn’t that saying that disability has that effect on people, right, that disability can’t be happenstance. It can’t be part of the everyday, you know, everyday experience. But rather that it is always heavy, it’s always fucking hard to figure out and I think that is discouraging, you know, about that because, you know, your typical Hollywood viewer may not be able to have, you know, the same sort of background that we have or the same experiences that we have so we’re able to see through some of the scene. Yeah, but I’m most discouraged about the fact that people would walk away thinking, “Well, that’s why I would never date a disabled guy.”

Jill: Mmm…hmmm

Chris: You know what I mean. Yeah.

Jill: Right. Which is why I’m glad there’s some other relationships that are shown throughout the film that show a bit more of the time it takes to develop relationships with anybody and, I don’t….Yeah, just a bit more authentic. I mean, but, maybe that’s what happens when you end up in a date with someone new; you check them out. So, I am a little discouraged by that but the rest of the film doesn’t leave me feeling that way. I just think it’s, you’re right, I think it’s an important scene to contemplate and think about.

Chris: Absolutely.

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Chris: Well, let’s talk a little about what the film might be saying about disability and, I think, maybe some of the things that I think we’re critical of and then we’ll come back around to talk about some of the promising elements of the film. But, let’s get the bad stuff out of the way and we want to start with stereotypes. Every Hollywood film is full of stereotypes and this one does not fail in that regard. You know, perhaps the biggest stereotype that we identified is that here we have another angry isolate cripple, right. This guy who can’t see his life at all as a disabled guy and, because of that, sort of at different parts of the film falls into levels of pity and isolation.

Jill: And depression.

Chris: Yeah, absolutely.

Jill: Yeah, in the beginning he’s talking about not wanting to be resuscitated if anything were to come and that’s hopeless for him. And he’s in this hopeless state and then we see it later in the film in a similar way.

Chris: And, sadly, that’s what most viewers might assume, right?

Jill: Well is that, Me Before You? Isn’t that part of the story?

Chris: Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah, and I think like this whole idea that when you’re faced with disability, you know, the only option you have is to sort of give up and die, I mean, that sort of…that’s perpetuated by this film. But, I would say by a third of the way through the film, though, we’re not talking about that anymore. The characters aren’t talking about that anymore.

Jill: They aren’t except for after…you know, we’re giving away a lot of the film…

Chris: Yeah, spoiler.

Jill: I guess I should say, If you don’t want to read the book before you see the film, you probably should not listen to us, so to speak. Because I want to say how…Okay so Phil is the main character who is a quadriplegic from a paragliding accident. So he’s an adventurer by nature and this is just how he lives his life. And Dell is the caregiver, the unexpected caregiver who comes in and sees him just as a person not, not as someone who he should pity but, here’s the thing. For me, Dell becomes that idea of people who are disabled needing or, maybe even minorities, needing saviors in their life. So in the beginning, Phil is ready to end his life. He’s done. He’s low energy and Dell comes in and, of course. He breathes new life into him and I can see why because he’s a fun character. He brings a lot of energy. So we see it once and I get that. But we see it a second time when after Phil leaves the date with Lily that we were referring to earlier and he goes back into a state of depression; pushes everybody away. He’s very angry and not wanting to live a full life as a disabled man. And who gets called but Dell and I think, I think part of that is true. I mean, we have people in our life who we call. They’re your lifelines but how does this film….or does it reinforce the stereotype that someone who’s disabled needs other people always to be a lifeline. And sometimes films seem in absolute because we don’t have an alternative to consider.

Chris: Sure, sure. And I also think it’s also..I think it’s probably worth our while to say that the stereotype of the black man sort of with the limited future, you know, with a background that is filled with crime and the dissolution of a marriage and, you know, problems with his kid so there’s not so much disability stereotypes here but interestingly enough the film puts him, puts Phil in a position of being a sort of savior for Dell and so, again, I think we need to be eyes wide open and say, “Alright, here we have a typical white man helping the poor African American” stereotype but, I don’t know, does it make it any better?

Jill: Then, I say, it’s a true story. It’s based…I mean, they didn’t make up that Dell was black, did they?

Chris: No, no, no.

Jill: And white… So, it’s a true story and while it seems really Hollywood-y, their life seems Hollywood-y which is why it was made into a movie.

Chris: And why it did very well.

Jill: Isn’t that interesting. It’s almost like they’re destined to support each other in interesting and important ways so they both need each other.

Chris: So, this may be a case of stereotypes sort of, yeah, interacting with truth and, I mean, certainly all stereotypes do but…so, anyway there’s just a couple things that we would like to think about. And I think, too, like the character we haven’t talked about yet is Yvonne. And Yvonne is… Phil describes her as his executive which, I believe, that she basically handles all of his affairs and this is played by Nicole Kidman. And she certainly fulfills this saintly figure stereotype, right. The person who is always there for Phil. Understands where he’s coming from. Always there to take care of him and, again, I mean there’s some depth in that character. I don’t mean to put it in their thinly but certainly she is this sort of saintly figure that we all perhaps anticipate every disabled person needs, right, to survive.

Jill: Mmm hmmm. Right. Yeah, someone looking out for him. She’s very protective of him particularly when Dell comes into the picture when they’re looking for a caregiver for him. Yeah, but it’s interesting. We’ll talk about something in a little bit and how her role changes and we see some hope with what the movie has done.

Chris: Yeah, absolutely.

Jill: One other thing that we’ve talk about is just…thinking about the role in films and this is just something to think about is with disabled people being shown in films seems like in most cases having money. Having money to take care, you know, to hire people. He has a physical therapist. He has Yvonne who’s around who handles his affairs and his schedules and he has Dell to take care of his caregiving and take him where he wants and he has the choice of amazing cars and so his life is taken care of in a way that he doesn’t seem to have to experience the realities of probably a majority of disabled people in terms of the scheduling and managing and bathrooming and all of the things that people do. 

Chris: Yeah and I’ll just be up front and honest and say that whenever I see a film like this. And I often think to myself, “What the hell are you so sad about? You have all this money. You have all this way in which to provide for yourself.” And, you’re right, more than half of disabled people live under the poverty line in the U.S. and that means that most of us are navigating insurance companies and medicare and different ways in which we can handle our self-care. You know, God forbid, we end up in a nursing home or some sort of, you know, advanced care situation where a lot of our freedoms are taken away. But, here, money is like this…It’s almost like…I often feel like, without money, this movie would never have been made. Like if the guy wasn’t wealthy, the film would not be as palatable. I don’t think people could. I don’t know. That’s just my own bias, I think. What do you think? How would this film have felt if he wasn’t uber rich? What would that look like? How would that feel?

Jill: (pauses) I’m going to pause because I’m going to, I hope other people are thinking about that. You wouldn’t have the mutual saving in the same way, right, because money also saves Dell. So it’s saving Phil and it’s saving Dell. So can you? What would a story look like when you don’t have that component? And I’m sure it happens everyday where… We meet people and there’s something beautiful between the way that you interact and you co-exist and support each other, but, yeah…

Chris: It erases, though, the reality of the effort it takes to be disabled in the 21st century. I think that part of what I don’t relate to at all is the fact that we never see Phil really having to grapple with his care. Like, it’s all about his care on one hand but on another hand it’s just a given that he can pay Dell to live in his house 24/7, you know, and all these things. So, it’s a really…it’s a tricky part of the film.

Jill: Yeah, which is interesting because if you listen to our last podcast. That’s a plug. Go to our Episode 18 with Judy Heumann and she talks very clearly about the daily challenges of care and getting to the bathroom and how it is so much a part of planning. I mean, she doesn’t go into a lot of depth, but that’s a reality. So, it’s interesting. That component is not a reality for the viewers of this film.

Chris: Again, you know this about Lisa and my life but we spend. I spend at least an hour and a half a day making sure that my care is set up for the next day or the next week or whenever. That sort of reality is rarely felt by an audience so I think they sort of, they miss an opportunity but, again, you’re right. It’s about a real story so what are you gonna do, right?

Jill: Right. So, what do we get left as…. I mean this is just making me think of where does our empathy of a viewer come in? We empathize about different things in his life than if he were in a different situation. Right? We empathize that he can’t do the things that he loved. That his wife is no longer living. We empathize with, you know, it’s hard to date. He’s depressed.

Chris: But the wealth, the wealth keeps us from truly, truly truly empathizing with him, I think.

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Jill: So for us as an organization, our mission is clearly rooted in understanding…well, awareness, understanding, and then belonging with a disability community and culture and how does someone, this is a question that we come up with or we talk about on a regular basis and the film, I think, raises this question if you’re looking for it or if you’re thinking about it. How does Phil gain an understanding of who he is as a disabled man? Who he is as a disabled friend as a partner? As whoever? And where does he get his information about what it’s like to live his life when he’s surrounded by all nondisabled people that we’re aware of?

Chris: That’s right. I think this film would be very different If, for example, he found himself in the community of other men or women who deal with quadriplegia. I mean, I think, the part of the struggle for Phil is that he doesn’t have anything to compare his life to. Right? And for a lot of disabled people, the community element of being around other disabled people it’s kind of rare. 

Jill: And we love it because if any of you have been following us we just recently had a DisArt, our fashion show in September and we’ve been connecting with and building a community of disabled models. And one of the things they talk about is, one, the cross disability relationships that they’ve developed but, also, how important the community and having a supportive community of people who get them is to their understanding and their acceptance of disability as an integral part of their life. 

Chris: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.

Jill: So we…I really like…We’re given an example if we pause and think about it of what it may be like for a lot of people who become disabled or who are raised disabled if they don’t have art or other places that are examples of what life can be like.

Chris. Yeah, and so it seems odd that we would pick that as something that the film does well. 

Jill: (laughs)

Chris: But i think it is something that it does well. I think that by showing his difficulty it allows us, who understands the power of disabled community, to say, “Look, he would have been perhaps, perhaps, a bit better off if he had some people who could truly empathize with him.”

Jill: But maybe that’s why he’s so, he ends up being so well off because Dell represents a minority culture and we consider disability as a minority culture and all the other people who were waiting to line up. They were all white people. Who knows what their situation is and I don’t want to assume, however, that identification of difference and being on the outside and people making stereotypes and assumptions is something they talk about in the film.

Chris: Right, right. That’s right.

Jill: So maybe that is part of the gift that they, they do come from places of common.

Chris: Yeah, well they’re both on the fringes.

Jill: …of commonality.

Chris: Yeah, they’re both on the fringes of society. I think that’s a great part of it. I think another thing that we have applauded in the film and certainly things to talk about in terms of what this film does well is about how the film portrays that disabled people have sexual needs and desires, right? And that’s a message and that’s certainly what Phil is dealing with and that, of course, you know, they do it in such a funny way and at times, you know, it’s so real and comical. You know, there’s this great (laughs). This very funny erection scene, you know, and it’s just a way of exploring disability in a way that most people will never think about and I think that’s really great.

Jill: Or…again, if you go back to Judy Heumann’s podcast. All these ties are making sense. She said that many of her conversations, sexuality was raised in conversations and just the questions that people want to ask but don’t. So, maybe this film broached some of that. Just with the erection scene. Maybe that’s answering some questions that some people in the audience have and I think that’s awesome. I think it’s really awesome.

Chris: Yeah, absolutely. You know, the other thing about all the relationships in the film and this is, I think we can say this with some security that most of the relationships show us that pity has no place in an authentic relationship, right? I think from the beginning we knew that Dell isn’t going to pity Phil. There’s a brilliant. That brilliant scene…

Jill: It’s quite comical.

Chris: (laughs) Where they meet and Dell’s trying to get a signature and Dell says to Phil, “Come on, man, can’t you sign this?” And Phil looks at his hands and says, “well, how do you expect me to sign it?” And Dell says, “Uh, I don’t know, slowly?” (laughs) There’s this whole sort of understanding that pity, pity gets us nowhere, right? 

Jill: And it’s funny to watch Yvonne who is helping to hire the next caregiver and how uncomfortable she is with this interaction because it really…For us it looks like he’s not pitying him. For her, it may be that he’s not being respectful. He’s not taking care of disability and the needs of people and it’s insensitive. But it sure does give us a laugh and Phil’s right away…you could tell that he likes Dell. And I wonder if it’s because of this, his attitude.

Chris: Yeah, yeah. I mean, what do you think about this, Jill? One way to think about that is that Dell is there to maybe correct or add another dimension to Yvonne’s understanding of Phil. Right? She’s very worried about him. She’s very very in tune with his needs and then Dell comes in and he’s like “whatever” just deal with it and move on. And I do like. I think the film does show her changing a bit as well, don’t you think?

Jill: Yeah. Yeah, I think. And, again, it’s hard because it’s a real story so was Dell going there like in the film because he just needed another signature for his parole officer to say that he applied for a job and he went there thinking he’s getting a janitorial job. So he’s coming in with just like, “I don’t know what I’m doing” and here he ends up with this amazing opportunity. I think sometimes if you think about the impact that people have when, at first, you don’t realize. I think you’re right. I think the impact that Dell has on Yvonne is to see him as fuller, more whole, as a person. I mean, there’s a scene where she gets him to dance. You know. I don’t that she would have done that before. Dell brings energy and fun and realness that maybe, maybe you’re right. Maybe he helped her too.

Chris: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, I think at the end of the film we’re left with the feeling and tell me if I’m wrong here, but I think we’re left with the feeling that Phil can continue to live a full life as a disabled person. I think that, that seems to me to be what we’re left with. Am I wrong there?

Jill: Yeah, no. I think you’re right. And it’s Dell doing it because Dell comes when he’s in despair again and take him and helps him go on an adventure and brings back, I think, I reminder of the adventure that Dell, that Phil, craved in his life and shows him that he can continue to do that.

Chris: And do it as a disabled person. He wasn’t overcoming, right? He wasn’t sort of leaving disability behind. He was, you know, he para, what’s it called paragliding or whatever the hell it is…

Jill: Paraglide, parasail…

Chris: He’s doing it as a disabled person would. He’s not ignoring the fact that he’s disabled.

Jill: So, I talked in the beginning of this conversation about Dell being his savior and that it filling a little of a stereotype, but maybe that’s because…it would have been someone else if Phil had a disabled community. There would have been someone who said, “Hey man, go live your life. Figure out a way creatively to do the things you want” and let’s continue. I think we’re also left with hope with Yvonne that she starts, she comes back in the end and we see them, we just get a glimpse of them laughing and seeing him so much more in contrast, if you have that relationship, or that scene and contrast it with the scene with Lily. It’s completely different and I think that’s, that’s everybody’s wish. I don’t care if you’re disabled or not to have that much comfort and joy and to experience it from someone else in your life. So, I love that. If you look at the Lily and you look at the Yvonne scene and think about it in that way. He just found the right person and that people can be with with disabled people; it just has to be the right fit.

Chris: And there has to be… well, I think one of the things we said before when we were off air is that for relationship to work, for any relationship to work, both people have to be accounted for and it seems, to me, that, you know, with all of its flaws and with some of the stereotypes and in the end this is a movie about people accounting for each other and sort of figuring out what it is they can offer one another.

Jill: Well and is that possible because Yvonne moves from that caregiving position? She leaves him for a period of time and then she comes back because they miss each other. She moves out of that role and she, a new role, or a new relationship can be developed that really has a strong foundation but now it has another component to it. I’m encouraged. I’m encouraged by where this movie is going. The things that it’s allowed for us to talk about, particularly, in contrast to Me Before You which is not like… we’ve talked before that these are two contemporary films with each other and it’s great. I mean, we’re not talking about something that was made in 1960 and now we’re to 2019, but we can have these conversations and each of them in their own ways is giving us an opportunity to think and dialogue and to really dig into some issues.

Chris: Well, and we hope that our listeners, that you guys will listen to what we have to say but then also form your own stuff. I mean, form your own opinions about this. We are excited to see films like this ‘cause of what exactly what Jill said, it gives an opportunity to unpack some of the complexities of disability and that’s really what DisTopia is all about. Anyway, hey thanks for showing up and listening and, I think, we’ll say good-bye and go shovel our driveways (laughs)

Jill: (laughs) No, we’re not shoveling. It’s too cold.

Chris: Hey, everybody. Thanks a lot, everybody. This is Chris Smit.

Jill: And Jill Vyn

Chris: Have a good night.

Jill: We’re signing off. 

Chris: Bye-bye

Jill: Bye

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