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THE INTOUCHABLES (INTOUCHABLES)

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This sentimental odd couple comedy-drama has been an enormous hit in France, which only proves that the supposedly sophisticated French are as prone to swallow manipulative treacle as Americans are. “The Intouchables,” to use the nonsensical “English” title the American distributor has chosen, has been seen by some commentators as racist. But though a case could be made for that proposition—including the fact that the black man here was actually an Arab in the “true” story on which the screenplay is based—its greatest insensitivity has to do with class and culture rather than skin color.

The duo in question are Philippe (Francois Cluzet, who bears a striking resemblance to Dustin Hoffman), a wealthy man paralyzed from the neck down due to a paragliding accident, and Driss (Omar Sy), a rough-hewn French-Senegalese ex-con he impetuously hires as his live-in caregiver, appreciating that during his interview Driss doesn’t come across as the typically simpering, pitying applicant. Inevitably the two men become friends, helping one another—Philippe assists Driss in dealing with his tangled family problems, and Driss arranges for the insecure Philippe actually to connect with his female pen-pal—while going through a series of mini-adventures (they paraglide together, and Driss takes Philippe on joy-rides on motorized chairs and in a speeding sports car).

The last episode recalls a similarly calculated American movie, 1992’s “Scent of a Woman,” except in that case it was the timid hireling played by Chris O’Donnell who needed to be loosened up by his boss Al Pacino, whose blindness didn’t stop his bellowing and carousing. Here it’s Driss who’s tasked with helping Philippe break out of his privileged but sterile cocoon, and it’s the portrayal of this virile yet sensitive fellow that puts the picture securely into the tradition of The Noble Savage. He’s magnetic but slightly fearsome as well as charmingly manipulative, and instantly shatters cultural pretense and stifling social norms. So it’s perfectly fine when he, for instance, guffaws loudly at his first experience of opera, and later shows everybody how boring a chamber orchestra concert in honor of Philippe’s birthday was by cranking up his favorite—Earth, Wind and Fire, of all things—on the speakers and leading everyone in an uninhibited dance. (He also shows the absurdity of modern art by producing a canvas of splattered paint that sells for a large sum.)

The message in all this is the hoary old notion that uptight people have to be snapped out of their slavery to convention by intervention from a person who lives according to his natural impulses rather than society’s rules. It’s a very French idea that one can trace back to the jargon of the more simplistic Enlightenment thinkers and that helped fuel the 1789 revolution, and one that the French have really never abandoned. So Driss is black, yes, but more importantly he’s the person uncorrupted by what passes for culture who can liberate benighted souls from their mindless subservience to societal norms. Of course the script undermines the whole premise for a laugh at the end, when Driss, applying for a new job, exhibits some distinctly upper-class knowledge.

American movies also pander to the notion that people from what used to be called the wrong side of the tracks are freer and more clever than their social “betters,” but even a cookie-cutter comedy like “Tower Heist” subverts the formula. “The Intouchables” doesn’t. Driss has his problems at home, and even gets a bit of a comeuppance when a woman he’d been trying to lure into bed turns out to have other sexual interests. But for the most part he’s a rough-edged paragon who can flim-flam cops with the best of them, teach drivers who park illegally to have better manners, give the rich guy lessons on parenting, handle a teen infatuation gone bad with strong-arm tactics, and solve a problem involving a supposedly dangerous drug dealer just by talking to the guy. It’s all a modern fantasy that this picture prefers simply to confirm.

And it doesn’t help that Sy plays him so exuberantly, with demonstrations of a huge smile and pearly teeth alternating with scenes in which he smolders with virility. He’s a charismatic actor, but one lending his pizzazz to a hopeless stereotype. Cluzet is necessarily more restrained, but his performance is a catalogue of suppressed mugging as he responds—supposedly involuntarily—to Driss’s outrageous statements and actions. The rest of the cast just obediently fall into line with the filmmakers’ programmatic scenario; this is really a two-man show, and the entire production—including the technical crew—appears to have been directed to showcase them.

As the popular French reaction to “The Intouchables” proves, it’s certainly possible to enjoy the movie’s canny crowd-pleasing (or pandering) calculation; but even before it’s over, you’ll know you’ve been had.

AMERICAN REUNION

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It’s been thirteen years since the raunchy high-school comedy “American Pie,” about four pals vowing to lose their virginity before graduation, hit theatres, spawning a couple of inferior theatrical sequels (“American Pie 2” in 2001 and “American Wedding” in 2003) as well as a direct-to-video afterthought (“Band Camp”) and loads of imitators. Now comes “American Reunion,” an attempt at resuscitating a franchise that should have been left dormant. But obviously nostalgia—and greed—know no limit.

The problem with the picture is basically that it’s a lazy piece of work—so lazy, in fact, that it even declines to concoct an explanation for why it’s a thirteen-year reunion rather than the ordinary round-decade one, preferring a throwaway joke instead. Unfortunately that’s characteristic of a movie that expends little energy giving the characters any heart, content instead to offer a succession of cheesy sex gags, beginning with a masturbation double-header and concluding with a credit-roll blow-job bit, with plenty of other variations in between. Some scatological humor, of course, is added as well—along with a dollop of gay and ethnic jokes and the obligatory dose of sentimentality.

The set-up is pretty simple. At the urging of Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), who wants to get away from his wife for a while, the buddies from the first picture decide to come home for their HS reunion. Jim (Jason Biggs) comes with wife Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) and their young son; he hopes to use the time to recharge their marriage. Unfortunately, he finds that next-door neighbor Kara (Ali Cobrin), whom he used to baby-sit, is now a stunning eighteen-year old with a crush on him and a nasty boyfriend (Chuck Hittinger). Oz (Chris Klein), now a famous TV sportscaster, comes with his stunning party-prone girlfriend (Katrina Bowden), but is inevitably reconnects with his old flame Heather (Mena Suvari), despite the fact that she has a rich, arrogant doctor for a boyfriend. And in his wife’s absence Kevin finds himself gravitating toward his erstwhile sweetheart Vicky (Tara Reid). Meanwhile Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) arrives claiming to be a world-traveling adventurer.

Missing from the group is the obnoxious Stifler (Seann William Scott), who wasn’t invited but shows up anyway and becomes the trouble-making leader of the pack. He serves as the sparkplug for much of the rowdier stuff here, though also as the unlikely catalyst for sappy friendship-centered stuff in the last reel, which winds up at the prom, no less. It’s there that all the couples are properly sorted out, including Finch with erstwhile band chubby turned bartender beauty Selena (Donna Ramirez) and Stifler with somebody else’s mom.

Other characters from the earlier films make appearances, too—folks like Sherman (Chris Owen) and the “MILF” guys (John Cho and Justin Isfeld). You might want to bring a scorecard to keep everyone in mind. But the one figure who stands out—and who’s just about the only reason to see the movie—is Eugene Levy as Jim’s dad Mr. Levenstein. He’s been widowed for three years—Molly Cheek is seen only in a photograph—and desperately lonely. Levy gets some good footage when he tags along with Jim and Michelle to Stifler’s party, and inevitably gets together with Stifler’s mom (Jennifer Coolidge). Seeing those two in the same frame is almost worth the price of admission in itself, but Levy has some other good moments too. He doesn’t save the picture, but he makes parts of it tolerable.

Of the rest, the ones who come off best, perhaps surprisingly, are Klein and Scott—the former because he’s simply likable, the latter because he’s unafraid to take his character as far as possible. Though that means that he’s asked by the scripters to do some pretty nasty stuff (like his encounter with a beer cooler, or another with a girl he remembers well), he also gets most of the good lines not handed to Levy. Biggs demonstrates why his star quickly fell, and Nicholas and Thomas remain the blandest of the troupe. The females, one must note, are all underused, with Hannigan looking rather more tired than one would expect—perhaps the duties of motherhood have worn too heavily on her.

“American Reunion” is well enough made, though the direction by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg doesn’t exhibit much verve, being content to let the action amble along listlessly to a running-time of nearly two hours. That gives us all the more time to see how synthetic the whole thing is. The result is a movie that proves you can go home again, but may encounter people you’d have preferred to forget.