In its native France, "The Intouchables" became one of the biggest box office hits of all time. Upon its American release, critics have mostly complained about how condescending or politically incorrect the film's depiction of race relations is.
Seeing the film will probably leave you wondering what all, or any, of the commotion is about. Forget everything about cultural differences and racial politics: This is a simplistic, feel-good story that we have seen many, many times before.
Philippe (Francois Cluzet) is a wealthy Parisian recently paralyzed from a paragliding accident. Driss (Omar Sy) is a poor black immigrant whom Philippe hires off the streets as his live-in caretaker. Philippe is impressed by Driss' ruthlessness, his affable street smarts and his quick-witted rebuttals to assumptions that he's an uncultured savage. Driss doesn't take well to the down-and-dirty tasks his job requires, but he eagerly offers Philippe more unconventional forms of therapy, such as sharing marijuana with him and blasting Earth, Wind & Fire at an upscale party. . And so the two men form an improbable and heartwarming companionship that transcends barriers of race and social class.
Trailblazing stuff, isn't it.
"The Intouchables" deserves some credit for what few variations it puts on the tolerance-and-acceptance formula. This isn't necessarily the story of a stuffy white guy learning to loosen up. Philippe is pretty loose already he hired Driss, first of all, and is willing to go along with his constant taunts and antics. More accurately, "The Intouchables" is about two distinct types finding an amusing common ground. And those types are portrayed by two actors who give much-needed personality to the narrative. Cluzet conveys varying degrees of disappointment, impatience and delight while confined to expressing himself with his mouth and eyebrows. Sy, like his character, keeps daring you to resist his charming brashness.
Still, somewhere in the episodic array of scenes showing the two men bonding, conversing, smoking, arguing, etc., it occurs to you that the film, quite simply, doesn't go anywhere. In the opening scene, the men play a prank on two police officers: Driss speeds in a car and attracts their attention, Philippe fakes a seizure to lose their attention, then they smoke and laugh about it afterward. When that scene is, for whatever reason, reprised toward the end of the film, we see it again with no new understanding, no different perspective.
"The Intouchables" doesn't develop its central relationship beyond surface differences and little jokes. We never learn the source of Philippe's immense wealth; likewise, all we know about Driss' family situation is that it doesn't seem good, and it will interfere with the plot when needed. It's as if the only important thing we need to know about these friends is that they became friends.
Cluzet and Sy do what they can to make it a pleasure to be with these characters. Too bad the film doesn't realize that this unlikely bond is all too familiar, and banal, to work on its own.
2 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: Francois Cluzet, Omar Sy and Anne Le Ny
DIRECTOR: Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano
RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes
RATING: R for language and some drug use.
THE LOWDOWN: A wealthy white man, recently paralyzed from an accident, hires a poor black immigrant to be his caretaker.