When I saw Upgraded, a new romantic comedy on Amazon Prime, I was excited to see Camila Mendes in a leading role that wasn’t in high school. Mendes, who is 29 years old and known for her performances in Riverdale and Netflix’s Do Revenge, has proven her ability to play a confident yet vulnerable teenage queen. In Upgraded, directed by Carlson Young, Mendes finally gets the opportunity to play a character closer to her own age – a determined assistant with a master’s degree in art history who finds herself in over her head but still manages to win over those around her.
Similar to many other teenage dramas that have received upgrades, Upgraded is a film that would have been backed by a medium-sized studio in the 2000s, but now goes straight to streaming. It has a sense of disposability and is clearly influenced by previous works, most notably The Devil Wears Prada. Just like Anne Hathaway’s character Andi, Ana is a driven twenty-something living in New York City with limited funds and big dreams. She is stuck doing menial work in exchange for a taste of luxury. As an expert in fine art, she is part of a training program at an upscale auction house and is desperately trying to make it big before she runs out of money and has to resort to selling paintings of boats to elderly people back in Tampa. She is an unwelcome guest crashing on a futon in her sister Vivian (Aimee Carrero) and fiance Ronnie’s (Andrew Schulz) one-bedroom apartment. They are both loud and have no understanding or appreciation for art, as they come from a working-class background.
The movie’s inconsistent shifts in tone begin with its opening scenes, transitioning from unsuccessful camp humor to charming, naturalistic fantasy romance. Written by Christine Lenig, Justin Matthews, and Luke Spencer Robert, Upgraded initially appears to be a parody of the art world, particularly through Ana’s boss, Claire (played by Marisa Tomei), who resembles a less successful version of Miranda Priestley and speaks with a jarring, off-putting accent. Ana, played by Saoirse-Monica Jackson from Derry Girls, speculates that Claire’s accent is a cover for being from Minnetonka. Ana embodies the archetype of a toxic boss, a once-revered figure in low-paying, prestigious jobs that no longer fit in the year 2024 and whose redemption is difficult to believe. She is the type of impeccably dressed tyrant who bullies junior employees for minor mistakes, publicly humiliates them for small errors, and cleverly manipulates low-ranking assistants against each other for the slightest chance of advancement.
Due to a fortunate mishap, Claire convinces Ana to join her on a business trip to London to assist her arrogant assistants, Suzette and Renee, with an important auction deal. Despite being placed on a later economy flight, Ana manages to charm her way into a first-class seat next to Will Delaroche, the attractive son of socialite Catherine. As the film’s faux British tabloid puts it, Will is the “dishy” heir of his bohemian-chic mother. This storyline is similar to last year’s Netflix romantic comedy Love at First Sight, but with a focus on work. Ana uses her position as the youngest New York art director at the company where Catherine is planning to auction off her late husband’s Russian art collection to gain favor with both Delaroches.
At 104 minutes, Upgraded maintains the ideal length for this type of escapism, with a smooth and effortless plot. However, it can still feel cumbersome as it switches between the exaggeratedly ridiculous art world and the more relatable flirtation among real people who drink and joke around. (At least Ana swears frequently, adding a touch of realism.) Mendes’s performance is convincing as someone who has played Veronica Lodge, portraying the constantly bullied third assistant. Yet, it is a relief whenever she steps out of the office and engages in playful banter with Catherine or, better yet, Will. Renaux perfectly embodies the platonic ideal of a wealthy London boy, with a charming Jude Law-esque presence reminiscent of The Holiday.
The romcom formula and strong performances from Mendes and Renaux make it easy to overlook moments of laziness in the film – such as Ana waking up at 7.30am and immediately heading to the airport for a flight to London, or her impressive knowledge of art. The direction can also be choppy at times. Compared to Bradley Cooper’s 2015 film “Burnt,” which glorifies toxic bosses in upscale London settings, “Upgraded” is less serious but more successful. It also has more pretensions and is more coherent than “Emily in Paris.” In true streaming fashion, it flows seamlessly and is elevated by Mendes’ underrated performance. Hopefully, she will soon graduate to leading roles in adult films.
The latest version is now accessible on Amazon Prime.