The Intouchables has been a record-breaking hit in its native France and all over Europe. The Weinstein Company is already casting its American remake, no doubt with one eye on an upcoming Oscar race. The film’s popularity is no enigma: It’s about two people from different walks of life forming an oddball friendship, and it hits every possible feel-good and heartwarming button. It even has uplifting montages scored to soul music.
The Intouchables, however, also has actors who are sly and skilled enough to save the film from dissolving in schmaltz, despite all the efforts of writer-directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano to tug heartstrings the Hollywood way. So if you have limited tolerance for this sort of film and a significant other who won’t want to miss it, your best bet may be to catch it now, with subtitles.
Screen veteran François Cluzet plays Philippe, a wealthy, widowed Parisian rendered quadriplegic by a paragliding accident. In need of live-in assistance, but weary of the mealy-mouthed political correctness of career caregivers, he hires a brash young immigrant from Senegal who came to the job interview only so he could qualify for the dole. Driss (Omar Sy) is eager to escape a crowded apartment in the inner city. But he’s unprepared for his new duties — so much so that, in one of the film’s more insulting gags, he pours hot tea on Philippe’s legs just to prove to himself that his employer is paralyzed.
Nonetheless, as Driss finds his footing, the two men begin to learn from each other and enrich each other’s lives — Philippe by introducing his employee to High Culture; Driss by giving his boss high-speed jaunts in a sports car, encouraging him to take risks and passing him the occasional joint. (You know this is a French film because it portrays smoking — not just of weed, but of tobacco — as a freewheeling habit that only killjoys would oppose.)
The men’s friendship is highly programmatic, but at least the enrichment goes both ways. The Intouchables isn’t yet another film about a rich white person selflessly elevating a poor black kid into the middle class (e.g., The Blind Side); or about a Magical Black Man selflessly offering homespun advice to a clueless white fellow. Particular credit for stereotype evasion belongs to Cluzet, who plays Philippe with a teasing strain of irony underlying his uptightness. His motivation for wanting an unconventional caregiver is clear: As he tells his lawyer, he’s through with pity. As for Sy — who beat out Jean Dujardin of The Artist for France’s equivalent of the Best Actor Oscar — he shows star-making charm and charisma, even when his character descends into clownish ignorance.
Toward the end, The Intouchables starts to feel like a rough draft, losing touch with its characters’ motivations as it moves toward a predictable conclusion. Throughout, it comes off as a loose collection of anecdotes, some genuinely touching and fresh — an improvised-feeling scene where Driss reacts to classical music is the film’s funniest — and others painfully pandering. That scene is immediately followed by one in which Driss gets the rich stiffs to loosen up by dancing to his beloved Earth, Wind & Fire, a culture-clash cliché that already felt weathered in American comedies of the ’80s. (It seems awfully convenient that Driss loves music unlikely to alienate the film’s target audience — rather than, say, raunchy hip-hop.)
Anne Le Ny and Audrey Fleurot do fine work in underdeveloped roles, but The Intouchables is basically a two-man act, which means the success of the American remake will depend largely on its casting. It’s also marginally possible that Paul Feig, as director, will remember the naturalism he brought to portraying American social castes in “Freaks and Geeks” and produce something rawer and funnier than the French version.
But don’t count on it. Chances are, this version of The Intouchables will remain untouchable for those seeking a “life-affirming” movie with a manageable sugar rush. And, yes, that’s what its perversely Franglish title means.