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.