Upgraded, not to be confused with Leigh Whannel’s 2018 R-rated action movie Upgrade, is the latest entry from Prime Video as their major Valentine’s Day weekend tie-in. Starting in 2021 with the release of The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, the streamer has released yearly romance movies as a viewing option for couples over the romantic holiday that in the past likely would have been mid-budget theatrical releases. These have yielded mixed results, from 2022’s delightfully funny I Want You Back to the well-intentioned but tonally confused Somebody I Used to Know in 2023. Upgraded feels like a classic 1990s romantic comedy but with a millennial/Gen-Z twist in both good and bad ways.
The film stars Camila Mendes (Riverdale) as Ana, an ambitious intern for a high-maintenance boss, the art curator Claire (Marissa Tomei). Ana is desperate to get off her sister and brother-in-law’s sofa and start her own art gallery, especially after impressing her boss one day is invited along for an important business trip to London. Yet Claire’s other two assistants, Suzette (Rachel Matthews) and Renee (Fola Evans-Akingbola), resent Ana and put her on a flight that leaves in four hours. This results in a nice TSA agent upgrading her flight to first class, where she meets William (Shadow and Bone‘s Archie Renaux).
A slight misunderstanding of Ana’s phrasing leads William to believe Ana has her boss’s job, and she goes along with the white lie. It soon spirals out of control and threatens her career and happiness, but just might bring her love.
Camila Mendes has had an interesting career. Like fellow Riverdale co-stars Charles Melton (who made waves in last year’s May December) and Cole Sprouse (whose funny enough movie Lisa Frankenstein is another romance movie releasing the same day as Upgraded), Mendes has been able to parlay her role on a popular CW series into a film career.
In 2020, she appeared in the thriller Dangerous Lies for Netflix, followed two months later by a small supporting role in the sci-fi romantic comedy Palm Springs for Hulu. Then, in 2022, she starred in the hilarious Netflix teen comedy, Do Revenge. Now, with Upgraded (which she also executive produced), she steps into the realm of romantic leading lady for Prime Video. Her next film as both star and producer, Música, will debut at South by South West on March 14th before debuting on Prime on April 4, 2024. Between Netflix, Hulu, and Prime, she has become the new Queen of Streaming movies.
She has cultivated a career taking different roles in thrillers, indie Sundance hits, teen comedies, and now romantic comedies in a way that many great actresses of the past did. This not only speaks to the state of the film industry, as many of the films Mendes has chosen to work in have shifted from theatrical distribution to homes on streaming platforms, but also helps solidify her as a millennial heir to actresses like Julia Roberts or Anne Hathaway.
The Anne Hathaway comparison is particularly apt as Upgraded has much in common with The Devil Wears Prada. Both involve a young woman working for an over-the-top controlling boss while conflicting with another assistant. While Upgraded certainly does not reach the highs of The Devil Wears Prada, it is still a charming romantic comedy with a charismatic cast.
Anthony Stewart Head (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) has a great supporting role as an over-the-top actor in the type of role that reminds audiences of Rhys Ifan’s fun roommate in Notting Hill or Martin Short in Father of the Bride. Thomas Kretschmann is known for his intense German accent that has been used as a gravitas in films ranging from The Pianist to King Kong to even Cars 2; he gets to bring that energy to a nice comedic effect as an art curator.
The rest of the cast is well-rounded, with Andrew Schultz giving the film’s funniest performance as Ana’s brother-in-law. Derry Girls Saoirse-Monica Jackson has a brief but memorable role as Ana’s friend Amy, but due to the nature of the film forcing the lead character to leave behind the comfort of home and go to a foreign country, she is largely relegated to the film’s first act.
Both Rachel Matthews and Fola Evans-Akingbola excel at playing the cruel, vindictive assistants who hold their status over Ana, but the movie does seem to forget to give them an ending. The Cinderella nature of the story of a young girl from poverty meeting a handsome, wealthy aristocrat certainly pits them in the Wicked Step-Sisters category, but with the film being so understanding of Tomei’s character, it can’t help but feel like there is a subplot or resolution missing regarding them.
Upgraded is a cute romantic comedy that is a throwback to when the genre was much more popular, with stars like Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Richard Gere, and Julia Roberts dominating theaters. It does not reinvent the wheel and plays a lot of the familiar beats, but after the genre has been away for so long, sometimes delivering what audiences expect is more than enough. The most frustrating aspect of Upgraded is how there was a chance for it to break the mold.
Class consciousness is hinted at throughout the movie, but never truly drawn out. Ana is forced to share a one-room apartment with her sister due to the skyrocket-high rent prices in New York; Ana checks her bank account at the beginning of the movie and then has to worry about how she will pay for an Uber while arriving in London; the film makes references to a lot of student debt and credit card payments Ana is paying off. These are all very real, relatable things that millennial audiences can likely relate to and would make for some great commentary and even funnier gags. But aside from a few passing references sprinkled throughout, the movie doesn’t quite dig into them so as not to upset the rom-com fantasy.
While it keeps Upgraded from maybe going above and beyond, the movie is looking to capture a certain type of romantic comedy that has been missing for years. Films like this and the recently released Anyone but You have been looking to return to the days when not only were romantic movies popular, but the specific premise of featuring characters going to beautiful settings and engaging in a lot of misunderstandings and miscommunication that led to wacky hijinks. While not as funny or charming as Anyone but You (or No Hard Feelings for that matter), Upgraded still works as an enjoyable midday watch.
While the romance angle in Upgraded might be a bit lacking, as the movie sort of puts it in the backseat for the second half in favor of Ana’s personal development, it still concludes with a traditional romantic ending that, depending on how you view it, is either cliché or charming. It is safe and enjoyable, and sometimes, that is all you want from this type of movie. It is a comfort watch designed to show off beautiful locations and charming characters.
Director Carlson Young, who fans might know best from MTV’s Scream and Jacquelin in the popular “Substitute Teacher” sketch from Key & Peele, makes her directorial debut and taps into the charming tone and comforting aesthetic of those like You’ve Got Mail or While You Were Sleeping. It is a good starting point for what could be a promising career as a director. Carried by Mendes as both a star and a producer, Upgraded is worth a watch for anyone looking for something new but familiar this Valentine’s Day and serves as another reminder that Mendes is one of the most exciting talents working today.
Upgraded is an Amazon MGM Studios and Gulfstream Pictures production and is currently streaming on Prime Video through the link below: