The Intouchables

B Comedy

  • Written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano

I can’t really complain about France’s latest big commercial hit. As you’d expect, it’s a crowd pleaser. Based on a true story, it follows the thorny but eventually healing the_intouchablesfriendship between a wealthy paraplegic and the African immigrant hired as his caregiver.

No surprise that this has become a box office bonanza. It’s funny, heartwarming, and celebrates life. It stars two men of exceptional talent and charisma. It has everything that Hollywood execs love in a movie except explosions and English dialog.

Besides, the friendship it celebrates is between a rich white guy and his black servant. That fits easily into most people’s comfort zone. Actually, that fits into too many people’s comfort zone, if you ask me.

The white guy, Philippe (François Cluzet), lives in a mansion and enjoys great wealth. But he lacks a full body. Paralyzed from the neck down in an accident, he can move neither his arms nor his legs. He’s irritable, and caregivers seldom last.

Then, almost on a whim, he hires Driss (Omar Sy), a street-smart black African immigrant with a criminal record and no real desire to work. In fact, he goes to the job interview because the welfare office requires that he go to a certain number of them.

Of course they’re going to bond and become close. Driss helps Philippe learn how to enjoy life again. Meanwhile, Driss learns about the work ethic and begins to take up painting.

As Driss, Sy carries the movie. He’s funny, charismatic, sexy, and holds the screen like a pro. His performance is The Intouchables’ best asset, and probably has as much to do with its commercial success as the feel-good plot. If he doesn’t emerge from this as one of France’s biggest stars, we can only blame racism.

 The Intouchables is as carefully designed as a well-made clock. Unfortunately, it’s almost as predictable. You see everything coming a mile away, but you forgive that because the picture is so entertaining.

A more troubling problem: With its master/servant friendship, the story gets uncomfortably close to magic negro mythology. It manages to avoid the worst pitfalls of that offensive cliché, largely because Driss has his own problems. But then, his problems are those of the underclass. The picture avoids one offensive cliché for another.

Yet I liked the picture. Two-thirds of the way through, I was ready to give it a B+. Then I saw the "crisis" that ends the second act (all commercial movies have a crisis at the end of the second act). I won’t say what happens, but it’s  utterly pointless and unbelievable.

The Intouchables works as a fluffy piece of entertainment, thanks largely to Omar Sy’s performance. Prepare to be touched, even if you’re aware of the manipulation.

I saw The Intouchables at the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival.

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