Upgraded has the kind of identity crisis that may only be achievable in the post-streaming movie world of the 2020s. Like the scrappy career gal at its center, it wants to immerse itself in the glamorous but competitive arena of art auctions, where decorum becomes a clenched-teeth bloodsport ruled by impeccably dressed women of means. It also aspires to some level of Hallmark-style romantic travelogue fantasy about youth, beauty and meeting a stranger on a trip to London. And, at certain odd moments, it also appears to aim for a kind of post-streaming earthiness where a movie can have the tween-friendly sensibility of a chaste romance while still occasionally offering curses and innuendos befitting, well, at least a less well-behaved tween. It has a TV cast, except for an Oscar winner. It has a romance-novel glossiness, except in the many scenes where it looks unaccountably gloomy. What a bundle of confounding contradictions facing today’s fake scrappy career gals!
This movie’s version of that gal is Ana Santos (Camila Mendes), who hails from humble Florida, and has made it all the way to… Queens? New Jersey? The movie isn’t entirely clear where the studio apartment she crashes at is actually located. But it’s occupied by her sister and her sister’s fiancé; the latter sits around in his boxer shorts and barks complaints in a New York accent, only just barely refraining from eating spaghetti in his undershirt. Ana wants to open her own art gallery, and to that end (perhaps somewhat impatiently) rotates through a demanding training program at an auction house, which has just landed her under the supervision of the fearsome Claire Dupont (Marisa Tomei in an intentionally obtuse, European-sounding-but-maybe fake accent). Early in the film, she boldly points out an error in an auction program, which results in another employee’s firing – but we’re supposed to cheer anyway, because it affords Ana the opportunity to accompany Claire to a London auction (albeit as a “third assistant” at the beck and call of Claire’s even nastier minions).
When Ana is unexpectedly upgraded on her flight, she meets William (Archie Renaux). When he assumes, due to her station on the airplane, that she must be further up the art-world ladder than she is, Ana fails to disabuse him of that notion. (Sadly, Mendes fails to utilize the alter ego she developed as Veronica Lodge on Riverdale; Monica Posh remains sadly retired.) Soon she’s leading a double life: Toiling away at the London auction while William and his mother Catherine (Lena Olin) whisk her away to various social events – which in turn ups her assistant game, at least for a while.
There are further complications, though the movie doesn’t feel fully committed to them. At times, Upgraded more resembles a love story between Ana and Catherine, whose instant affection for the American girl could be charitably described as mysterious, and less charitably described as fanatical. Don’t get me wrong; Mendes, with her sleekly arched eyebrows and slightly mischievous smile, makes a likable rom-com striver, as far as that material goes. But the movie makes such an unappealing stew of its class politics: A sign of Ana’s inherent worth is the way that an ultrarich woman takes such an instant liking to her; the movie’s climax depends largely on whether an enormously valuable art collection can be milked for even more millions of dollars than hoped; Claire is eventually afforded some girlboss grace while her presumably underpaid underlings are not; and all the time, Ana’s working-class Floridian underdog bona fides must be underlined (while at one point implying, for the sake of a nonsensical joke, that because she was born in Florida, she’s probably not a person of color). Ana may be attempting to climb the class ladder, but the movie moves between classes with a freedom that feels weakly imagined; back at home, her sister and brother-in-law may be experiencing a kitchen-sink stage drama from the 1960s.
William, meanwhile, the film’s supposed co-lead, is… also around. He seems nice enough. That’s about as far as it goes. Is Upgraded aware what a romance actually entails, beyond overselling a perfectly handsome young man as a “10,” as Ana calls him? Or is the film misguided enough to assume that it’s got that Devil Wears Prada magic where it transcends romance for the loftier concerns of a working woman? Pretty meager magic to aspire to, really, although in another accidental triumph for professionally made movies of the 2000s, Devil Wears Prada’s emo workplace sitcom at least looks more or less like what a motion picture should. Director Carlson Young keeps Upgraded looking persistently drab – not so much in the manner of a moodily overcast London day, more in the style of a dimly lit London conference room. How can a movie about art use so little color, shadow, anything? This is the kind of movie where you only notice the bad compositions, like a weird vantage in a climactic moment between Ana and William where lower-angle shots of Ana include so much of William’s shoulder that the camera appears to be affecting the point of view of an invisible sidekick slightly to his right. Really, that’s where most of Upgraded takes place: somewhere slightly off to the side of where it wants to be.
Director: Carlson Young
Writer: Christine Lenig, Justin Matthews, Luke Spencer Roberts
Starring: Camila Mendes, Archie Renaux, Marisa Tomei, Lena Olin, Anthony Head, Saoirse-Monica Jackson
Release Date: February 9, 2024
Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Decider, Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.