In The Intouchables, a rich, stuffy white man exposes a poor black man to the “finer things” in life; in turn, the black man teaches the white man how to loosen up and find love. No need to check your watch: it’s still 2012.
With its brash humor and emotional generosity, The Intouchables has crowd-pleaser written all over it, but there’s no mistaking the queasy racial implications. The comedy-drama has its basis in a true story, whipped by writer-directors Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano into a buddy-movie froth. François Cluzet (Tell No One) plays Phillippe, a quadriplegic white millionaire who unexpectedly plucks Senegalese immigrant Driss (Omar Sy) out of the Parisian ghetto to be a live-in home-care provider. (The real “Driss” was Algerian immigrant Abdel Sellou, who penned the memoir You Changed My Life.)
Nakache and Toledano open the film with a sequence that suggests a slick crime movie: speeding cars, energetic music, and our heroes conning the cops. But it’s just one of the film’s many artful dodges, an entertaining hook placed at the top because it is, superficially, a good way to start a movie. Thereafter, the story flashes back to how Phillippe meets Driss, sees something in him, and installs him in a mansion that offers all the amenities, including a huge bedroom (!), a huge bathtub (!!), and a hot redhead (!!!), Phillippe’s assistant Magalie (Audrey Fleurot).
Driss initially balks at the work of a nurse, especially since it involves intimacy with Philippe’s nether regions. But collecting welfare checks cannot compete with living high on the hog, so Driss settles in, merrily flirts with Magalie, and boogies to Earth, Wind & Fire, lest we doubt his credentials as a Life Force capable of reigniting Phillippe.
For his part, the classical-music-loving Phillippe—also a closet adventurer—appreciates Driss' irreverent insistence on prodding his boss out of his discomfort zone and into his need for speed and romance. Phillippe brings Driss to high-society events, including the opera; Driss plays Earth, Wind & Fire for Phillippe and gets him high. Driss needles Phillippe to lay down the law with his spoiled adoptive daughter and, more importantly, to face his fears by meeting his female pen pal; Philippe teaches Driss about painting, which he profitably takes up.
Wildly popular in its native France, The Intouchables applies strict formula to an entirely reassuring story about improving one’s life by coming out of one’s shell and embracing new people and experiences: as told through bromance, it’s a cinematic warm fuzzy if ever there was one, and the performances by Cluzet and Sy prove highly appealing if not irresistible. But here in America, where we invented this formula, audiences are likely to find it discomfitingly retrograde.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]