French odd-couple comedy entertains despite stereotypes
This feel-good crowd pleaser from France has broken box-office records in its home country, and it’s now getting high-profile distribution from the prestigious Weinstein Company in the United States. Reviewers stateside have been a little skeptical of the film’s formulaic aspects, but there’s no mistaking this production’s appealing charm and energy.
Written and directed by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache and apparently based on actual events, it’s a two-man story built for a maximum of sentiment. Driss (Omar Sy), an African immigrant and part-time hoodlum, inadvertently charms his way into an appointment as full-time care-giver in the chateau of a quadriplegic aristocrat named Philippe (veteran French star François Cluzet).
Chronically unemployed and more or less alienated from the fragmented group of relatives with whom he sometimes resides, Driss applies for the job only in order to maintain his welfare eligibility. He’s not qualified, but his cheerful cantankerousness sets him apart from the hackneyed professionalism of the other job applicants. And Philippe, weary of the confinement and routine that have come to define his life, opts to take a chance on this oddly exuberant misfit.
It’s no great surprise, of course, that these two seemingly mismatched characters turn out to be very good for each other. Driss, impressed by the sumptuous creature comforts that are part of the job and prodded by Philippe’s testy defiance, rises to the challenges of his unexpected new responsibilities. And Philippe in turn begins to feel somewhat re-enlivened by the younger man’s frenetic and sometimes reckless ministrations to him.
As such, The Intouchables is an amusing combination of odd-couple/buddy-buddy comedy with ostensibly therapeutic concerns in mind. Its apparent good intentions carry less weight than they might have in a tale less dependent on broad stereotypes—the uptight old white guy, the effervescent African immigrant, etc. And the salient oppositions—classical music versus hip-hop, old white wealth versus the poverty of minorities—are presented in the glib and condescending terms that we’re more accustomed to find in television commercials.
This feel-good approach to some difficult issues doesn’t bear close scrutiny, however much we may want some artful reassurance on matters of aging and health, immigration and race, broken families, economic injustice. Still, the good-natured performances of the lead actors have a lot to do with whatever success it finds as entertainment. And Omar Sy, who won the French Cesar for best actor, is a particularly large and exceptional delight.