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Upgraded Lets Subplots Steal the Romantic Oxygen

(L-R) Camila Mendes and Archie Renaux as Ana and William in Upgraded. Image courtesy of Amazon MGM Studios.

When it comes to romantic comedies, like Upgraded, streaming on Amazon Prime Video beginning February 9th, the background subplot supporting the romance can be an enhancing blessing, an inconsequential distraction, or a detrimental curse. For example, Sandra Bullock’s profession as a token collector is pretty essential in While You Were Sleeping, but do we really care what corporate business Richard Gere coordinates during Pretty Woman or what kind of journalist work Meg Ryan is pretending to do in Sleepless in Seattle? Likely not. Yet, they could be worse. How about those attempted The Graduate connections in Rumor Has It?

Sure, those subplots can be setups and backdrops to fill out narrative depth, but they can’t steal too much oxygen from the main thread. One of the few rom-coms to do subplots well was Crazy, Stupid, Love, where every dangled angle mattered and meshed by the end of the movie. Upgraded, the sophomore feature from emerging actress and director Carlson Young (The Blazing World), has this classic rom-com subplot challenge and sorts it out to be the aforementioned inconsequential distraction. With this film, we’ve got a workplace comedy that doesn’t put enough time and energy into romance.

A woman holds a flute of champagne in an airline seat.
Camila Mendes as Ana in Upgraded. Image courtesy of Amazon MGM Studios.

Stepping into the film, Ana Santos (the headlining Camila Mendes of Palm Springs and Riverdale) is a fledgling Brooklyn intern working for her “sociopathic perfectionist” art broker boss Claire Dupont, played by Academy Award winner Marisa Tomei. Our optimistic protagonist impresses Claire enough correcting an unforeseen error that she is enlisted to join her inner circle for a London business trip to secure a valuable new collection. After being on the receiving end of excessive hazing from Claire’s vain top assistants (played by the duo of Happy Death Day series star Rachel Matthews and The Night Agent’s Fola Evans-Akingbola), a benevolent ticket agent bumps Ana to a first-class seat and access to the first-class lounge. 

Finally, 22 minutes into a 104-minute movie, Upgraded finally hits its prerequisite “Meet Cute” moment when Ana accidentally spills a Bloody Mary all over the nice suit of the dashing Brit William Laroche (Archie Renaux of Morbius and The Greatest Beer Run Ever). As fate demands, the two are seated as first-class neighbors on the transatlantic flight allowing them to apologize, flirt, and—in Ana’s instance—begin a whopper of a lie. Ashamed of her underling job, she suggests to William (and soon his famous actress mother Catherine Laroche, played by an effervescent Lena Olin) that she is the lead director of Claire’s art brokerage. This first stretch together is over a mere 11 minutes later.

A man looks over to a seat next to him on a plane in Upgraded.
Archie Renaux as William in Upgraded. Image courtesy of Amazon MGM Studios.

Stop me if you’ve seen or heard this kind of plot conundrum before. We have a main love interest lying about who they really are to impress a suitor. Ana lets her access to affluence as part of Claire’s entourage class herself up a bit and leverages her new elbow-rubbing friendship with the Laroche family to score her some advantageous perks for her job. Playing both sides catches up to her when it is revealed that Catherine’s art collection is the big account being pursued by Claire and her team.  

Far too much of Upgraded is hampered by all of the pretentious insider business schemes sullying romantic potential. After fits and spurts, our two would-be lovebirds don’t get a proper date night adventure until the 75-minute mark and– for an R-rated movie rife with F-word slingers– it’s a lukewarm one at best in the sparks department. That scene does propel one very lovely courtship montage of kissing and courtship set to the peppy “Iceblink Luck” by Cocteau Twins that ends six minutes later. And that’s it for Camila and Archie. The final half-hour is dominated by the inevitably revealed identity lie, fixing that lucrative pickle, and trying to win back the guy.

Four women gather in a meeting room office in Upgraded.
(L – R) Camila Mendes, Rachel Matthews, Fola Evans Akingbola, and Marisa Tomei in Upgraded. Image courtesy of Amazon MGM Studios.

Akin to something like Netflix’s hit show Emily in Paris, if Upgraded intended its imbalance towards careers hawking the finer things, some solid pieces are in place. Letting Marisa Tomei sink into the lush wardrobe from costume designers Lara de Brujin and Lance Milligan and lean into the imposing screen presence as the Edna Mode/Miranda Priestly-esque heavy makes for an enjoyable jaunt. Across from her as a potential partner more than a rival, Lena Olin is having the best time of anyone in this movie while gallivanting with decadence, playing feisty with the long-lost Anthony Head (TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer) as her beau, and confidently shooting arrows with the aim of Cupid. There’s a different movie somewhere where the two luminary women play out their business dealings fending off the catty Millennials and squeezing the accompanying and overqualified Thomas Krestchmann between them.

But those two ladies and their names are not anywhere near the poster. Upgraded was supposed to be a launching pad for Camila Mendes as leading lady making the leap from television and a re-polishing reclamation opportunity for Archie Renaux coming out of the albatross that was Morbius. They needed this movie more than Tomei and Olin. To have their upstaging arcs consume this much of the movie, the lavishness had to be worth it. Likewise, Mendes and Renaux’s romance needed to knock socks off to rise above the distraction. Unfortunately, neither is the case in Upgraded. 

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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