by M. Faust
The odds are pretty overwhelming that you will like the oddly titled French comedy-drama The Intouchables, about the relationship between a paralyzed rich man and the street-smart thief he hires as his caretaker. It’s already made more than $350 million internationally, and ranks as the second biggest hit in the history of the French film industry.
Viewers expressing their opinions on the internet are overwhelmingly positive: 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, 8.2/10 on MetaCritic, 8.6/10 on imdb. Chatter among the audience after the preview screening I attended was no different, with frequent use of the word “Oscar” (and not in sentences like, “My cousin Oscar will love this.”)
You may sense that I’m getting ready to disagree. Am I that predictable?
It may be based on a true story, but The Intouchables uses a fairly reliable movie template about two people bonding despite their considerable differences. Philippe (Tell No One’s François Cluzet), the scion of a wealthy family, has been paralyzed from the neck down since a paragliding accident. Since the death of his wife he has grown increasingly withdrawn. Driss (popular French star Omar Sy), who emigrated from Africa as a child, applies for a job as his caretaker only to get a signature on his unemployment form. He’s rude and obnoxious during the interview, so of course Philippe hires him.
Is that plausible? Wrong question. Philippe likes that Driss does not treat him with pity or even respect and guesses that he will be a tonic for his condition. And so he is, turning the house on end with music and dancing and propositioning the female staff. That he is barely able to tend to his charge is apparently incidental.
If this sounds mildly racist to you, there are critics who agree. Driss, we learn, has been in jail for six months, and lives with an oversized extended family in a housing project.
That’s not my problem with The Intouchables, which I found racist only to the degree that Driss is a bland stereotype (and no more so than Philippe, who listens to classical music and spends hours gazing at incomprehensible but valuable abstract paintings). Any racial questions are thrown into the blender at the film’s postscript, a shot of the two men on which the film was based, in which we see that the Driss character was an Algerian Arab.
My problem is that Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, who wrote and co-directed this, did such a clumsy job of bringing a can’t-miss story to life. The film is told almost entirely from Driss’s point of view, and there’s never any real tension between him and Philippe: Everything he does is accepted, and the characters never disagree in any but the most fleeting ways. Ancillary plot threads brought in to shore the story up are dropped, frustrating our hopes that they might reveal more about these characters.
The film is little more than a series of modestly amusing set pieces that work only if you overlook how ineptly they’re staged. (Driss interrupting the classical orchestra at Philippe’s birthday party to introduce everyone to Earth Wind and Fire would have been a great scene in 1977.) And the third act conflict, in which Philippe discharges Driss so that he can tend to his family, makes no sense: He’s better off going back to the streets than working at a well-paying job?
An American remake is already in the planning stages works, with director Paul Feig and Colin Firth to star along with Chris Rock, Jamie Foxx, or Idris Elba (though producer Harvey Weinstein reportedly wants a Latino actor in the part). I don’t know if it will be any better, but at least they should be able to do a proper job of using this standard feel-good formula.
But that’s just my opinion.
(Regarding the title: In French it’s Intouchables, which translates as “Untouchables.” As an idiom it doesn’t travel well, and while one can understand why they didn’t want to send it into American theaters as The Untouchables—is there any doubt that someone is eyeing a reboot of the Brian DePalma-Kevin Costner movie?—wouldn’t Les Intouchables have made more sense?)
Watch the trailer for The Intouchables
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