There’s scene in The Intouchables where unlikely caregiver Driss lets loose to Earth Wind and Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland” in front of a staff of domestic workers and classically trained musicians. The display is such an expression of joyful abandon, it was at that moment I fell in love with this movie. Granted it’s a bit calculated. Remember that scene where Julia Roberts is singing off key in the bathtub in Pretty Woman? Well yeah it’s kind of like that. But nevertheless it’s the instant that I realized that this is a wonderful French film and Omar Sy should be a star.
The chronicle concerns Philippe, a quadriplegic due to a paragliding accident. He’s a millionaire in a palatial mansion and is interviewing applicants to be his caregiver. Driss is a black man from Senegal living in a Paris ghetto. He’s just been released from a six month prison term for robbery and is currently unemployed. The public assistance Driss receives requires proof he is applying for work. Knowing he is unqualified, he merely applies for the job in an effort to satisfy the requirements. I won’t reveal the reasons why Philippe hires Driss over more qualified candidates, but it makes perfect sense. On paper the set up sounds hackneyed and manipulative. It would be easy to dismiss the premise as a superficial examination on race relations. I certainly felt that way upon viewing the trailer. While it’s one of those crowd pleasing culture clash concepts, it fashions a tale that transcends the material.
The narrative explores the friendship between Philippe and Driss with tenderness and depth. The rapport of this implausible duo is explored in little vignettes that uses the structure, sans the love affair, of a romantic comedy. The account is based on a true story, and while the characterizations are unique, the set up is not. This is a buddy picture detailing how human beings want and need the same things regardless of ethnic or social class differences. Through discussions regarding music, recreational activities, even child rearing, we slowly get an impression of two men that have much more in comon than was originally believed. It’s the performances that elevate this beyond the traditional odd-couple plot. The honesty draws the viewer into their situation. There is a genuine chemistry at work here.
The movie’s charms are admittedly obvious, but the cast extracts emotion with sincerity. Driving Miss Daisy, The Blind Side – there are many precedents. What’s amazing is that the two leads make this subject seem fresh. As a quadriplegic, François Cluzet must act with his face only. Physically he suggests Dustin Hoffman. Although he’s not a household name in the States, he’s a veteran actor who’s been acting in French cinema since 1980. 2006’s Tell No One is probably his best known work. Omar Sy is part of a comedy duo in France. He’s nothing less than a revelation. Both were nominated for César Awards (France’s Oscar) in 2011. Sy actually garnered the prize for Best Actor besting actual Oscar winner Jean Dujardin. The drama has become a worldwide smash having already earned $350.1 million as of June 2012. The Intouchables grossed $166 million last year in its native country alone to make it the second most-seen French movie of all-time there. It’s even listed amongst the Top 250 films as voted by IMDb users. Despite these accolades, this has incomprehensibly earned the wrath of a couple American critics in really nasty reviews. They somehow detected ugly attitudes within the script. I briefly mention this because such allegations should be addressed as the distorted misinterpretations that they are. Make no mistake, this is an upbeat story with a lot of heart with two marvelous performances at the center. After all how could 17.5 million French viewers be wrong?