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Upgraded review – Camila Mendes rises above uneven romcom

<span>Camila Mendes in Upgraded.</span><span>Photograph: Paul Stephenson/Amazon MGM Studios</span>
Camila Mendes in Upgraded.Photograph: Paul Stephenson/Amazon MGM Studios

I’ll admit that my first thought upon seeing Upgraded, a new Amazon Prime romcom, was something close to excitement – finally, a leading role for Camila Mendes that’s not in high school. At 29, the Riverdale alum, so game for whatever batshit curveball that show threw her and so sharp in Netflix’s romp Do Revenge, is a veteran of commanding the screen as a bitchy, beautiful, secretly vulnerable teen queen. Upgraded, from actor turned director Carlson Young, offers Mendes the much-deserved chance to act her age – or, at least, a scrappy third-tier assistant old enough to have a master’s degree in art history, who gets in way over her head and also charms everyone around her.

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Like many a teen-show-to-feature upgrade before it, Upgraded is the type of movie that would have been a mid-budget studio bet in the 2000s and now goes straight to streaming, with an air of disposability and clear, better antecedents – most obviously, in this case, The Devil Wears Prada. Like Anne Hathaway’s Andi, Ana is an ambitious twentysomething in New York with limited funds and serious aspirations, stuck doing unserious work in the name of luxury. An expert on fine art, she’s in a training program for an upscale auction house and trying to catch a break, lest she run out of money and be forced to, as she says, return to Tampa and sell paintings of boats to senior citizens. She’s an unwelcome futon crasher in the one-bedroom apartment shared by her sister Vivian (Aimee Carrero) and fiance Ronnie (Andrew Schulz), two people who speak loudly and don’t understand art, because working class.

That’s just the beginning of the film’s clunky tonal swings, which range from camp (least successful) to naturalistic fantasy romance (very winsome). Upgraded, written by Christine Lenig, Justin Matthews and Luke Spencer Robert, seems at first to be going for parody of the art world, particularly in the form of Ana’s boss, Claire (Marisa Tomei), essentially an off-brand Miranda Priestley with an implacable, jarring accent. (Ana’s friend Amy, Derry Girls’s Saoirse-Monica Jackson, speculates it’s a cover for being from Minnetonka.) Ana is an archetypical toxic boss, the once-glorified figure of low-paying prestige work that’s an ill fit in the year 2024 and a hard redemption arc to buy. She’s the type of couture-dressed terrorizer who harasses junior staffers for minor imperfections, publicly humiliates for small mistakes, and cannily pits low-ranking assistants against each other for scraps of hope.

So it goes that through a convenient mishap, Claire steamrolls Ana into a London work trip to extra-assist her Mean Barbie assistants du jour, Suzette (Rachel Matthews) and Renee (Fola Evans-Akingbola), on a major auction deal. Relegated to a later flight in economy, Ana again charms upward into a first-class seat next to Will Delaroche (Archie Renaux), the dishy, to quote the film’s faux British tabloid, son of bohemian-chic heiress Catherine (Lena Olin, striking the right note of narcissistic yet fun socialite). It’s basically the same rhythm as last year’s Netflix romcom Love at First Sight, but with more work talk. Ana ingratiates herself to both Delaroches, under the guise of being the youngest New York art director at the company where Catherine is planning to auction her late Russian oligarch husband’s art collection.

At 104 minutes, Upgraded is the right length for this type of escapist, smooth-brained fare yet still feels unwieldy, lurching between the cartoonishly ludicrous fine art world and a lived-in, genuinely biting flirtation in the world of real people who drink, flirt and tease. (At least Ana swears profusely, like a real assistant.) Mendes is as convincing as someone who played Veronica Lodge could be at acting the perpetually bullied third assistant, but it’s a relief whenever she leaves the office and banters with Catherine or, preferably, Will, who Renaux ably plays as the platonic ideal of a rich London boy with Jude Law in The Holiday-esque charm.

With the assurance of the romcom formula and some real earthiness to Mendes and Renaux’s performances, it’s not hard to skim over bits of laziness – Ana waking up at 7.30am and going straight to the airport yet having an overnight flight to London, Ana demonstrating her preternatural art smarts by recognizing the value of Renoirs and Cézannes – and some choppy direction. In terms of glorifying toxic bosses in rarefied London spaces, Upgraded is less serious (and more successful) than Bradley Cooper’s 2015 haute cuisine mess Burnt. It has more pretensions, and makes slightly more sense, than Emily in Paris. In true streaming economy form, it’s a smooth, ambient operator, made more memorable than it should be by a still underappreciated Mendes, who will hopefully upgrade to more headlining adults roles sooner rather than later.

  • Upgraded is now available on Amazon Prime