It’s quite the feat to craft a satisfying, clever romantic comedy in this cynical day and age, given almost every meet-cute, situational shenanigan and grand gesture has already been put to celluloid. However, “Upgraded,” which initially appears to be a stereotypical rags-to-riches tale centered on a desperate gal’s life drastically improving after telling a white lie to a cute guy, keeps these expected elements fresh and vibrant. Director Carlson Young and screenwriters Christine Lenig, Justin Matthews and Luke Spencer Roberts ground sharp, soaring sentiments in a reachable reality, innovatively remixing the genre’s familiar formulas to create their own meaningful and rather endearing movie.
Ana (Camila Mendes) is overworked and underpaid, stuck in a low-level trainee program at a premiere New York City auction house, Erwin, which brokers million-dollar deals on paintings. It’s her dream in life to open up her own art gallery and move out of her long-suffering sister Vivian (Aimee Carrero) and exasperated brother-in-law Ronnie’s (Andrew Schulz) studio apartment. Yet climbing the corporate ladder, or at least earning her accreditation, is seemingly impossible. Ana’s mere presence annoys high-strung boss Claire (Marisa Tomei), who’s adopted a fake French accent, a severe bob hairdo and an attitude that would make Miranda Priestley shake in her stilettos. Ana is also disdained by Claire’s model-sized mean-girl assistants Suzette (Rachel Matthews) and Renee (Fola Evans-Akingbola). This harried heroine is overdue for a reversal of her misfortune.
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Ana’s dire outlook finally improves after proving her mettle to Claire, earning a coveted spot as her third assistant on a spontaneous business trip to London. However, fate has something greater in store when an empathetic airline agent upgrades her ticket to first class, allowing Ana access to a luxury lounge where she spills her Bloody Mary all over a handsome Brit, Will (Archie Renaux), in town for an interview. The pair naturally reunite as seatmates, sharing in flirty repartee containing truths and, in her case, a fudged fact that she’s in Claire’s position as the director of Erwin’s New York office. Hijinks ensue when Ana meets Will’s fabulous, famous mother Catherine (Lena Olin) and discovers she’s planning to have Claire broker an auction of her ex-husband’s fine art collection. Ana is then forced to keep up a precarious charade — one where she stands to lose the guy and the job of her dreams.
Ana’s journey, going from down in the dumps to top of the heap, is a formidable one, loosely connected to Cinderella’s transformation. Representations of storybook archetypes — fairy godmothers (like the benevolent ticketing agent and Catherine, who plays a part in granting Ana’s wishes), evil stepsisters (like Suzette and Renee, who occasionally outfit themselves in Anastasia and Drizella color-themed couture) and sociopathic stepmothers (like Claire and her initially frightening behavior) — are integral to Ana’s authentic metamorphosis. She’s even relegated to a grimy, depressing basement workspace, handling Suzette and Renee’s tasks on top of her own. By understating these ties to fantasy, it helps our beloved heroine and her proto-prince avoid the broadly cartoonish realm as they confront relatable problems dealing with their worth (both financial and self).
Mendes and Renaux make for a lovely on-screen duo, teasing out lighthearted tenderness within the witty banter. But any scenes pairing Mendes with Olin and Tomei, both captivating performers in their respective roles, truly light a fire under the proceedings, making the dialogue crackle and the connective conflicts percolate. Plus Matthews and Evans-Akingbola are hilariously droll in a “Devil Wears Prada”-inspired way.
Delightfully unexpected third-act twists and turns stay focused on a fiercely feminist mantra of women supporting and uplifting other women. Young’s innate dexterity with dynamic, delicately faceted female characters has notably carried over from her sumptuously stylized directorial debut “The Blazing World.” While the visuals in her follow-up feature are comparatively workmanlike, there’s an undeniable energetic vibrancy. The montage set to Cocteau Twins’ brightly dimensional pop song “Iceblink Luck” pulls double duty, not solely furthering narrative momentum by showcasing the couple’s deepening romance and Ana’s rise towards success, but also making us equally as enamored with the loveliness on display.
That said, there are a few flaws dulling this bauble’s brilliance. It’s questionable that Catherine, who is loving and warm toward her son’s paramour, wouldn’t warn Ana of her strategy to gain more money from the art auction as this move would clearly impact Ana’s career regardless of her job title. Instead, Ana is as blindsided by this as we are. We’re only told that Girard (Grégory Montel), a pesky weasel from the French office, is a threat to Claire, but his quest to undermine her is never shown. Plus, Thomas Kretschmann, playing the owner of Erwin’s auction house, and Anthony Head, playing Catherine’s confidante, are both underutilized.
When it comes to conflict, Young and company have a smoother time incorporating sweetly sentimental outcomes. After all, this is what audiences typically seek from these kinds of comfort films. Heartening themes involving holding on tight to one’s dreams and not devaluing one’s self-worth make for an encouraging upgrade from the norm. It’s even better since there are capable filmmakers piloting this transformative journey.
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