“The Intouchables” is a study in contrasts. In one corner, there is Phillipe (Francois Cluzet), a wealthy, white renaissance man paralyzed from the waist down. He is mobile, exiting his home for fine dining, purchasing artwork, and attending the opera. He cannot continue to live the finer life without assistance, however, and as the film begins, he is in search for a new aide.
In another corner is Driss (Omar Sy), an unemployed head of a full household, hustling to keep a roof over everyone’s head, even if it means deceiving the government. He earns welfare checks simply by the act of applying for jobs, openly requesting to potential employers that he be turned down for the job. He is black, in case you were wondering. Is basing a film around this contrast problematic? Congratulations, you may not be the core audience for this Gallic crowd-pleaser.
It’s impossible not to mention the seemingly preposterous $330 million plus worldwide gross, before a domestic release, that “The Intouchables” has already registered. For one, it’s a concise way of explaining that such predictable conceits have almost universal appeal. For another, it’s probably a more fruitful conversation than discussing the merits of the film itself, as it plays out exactly the way you’d expect.
Driss’ job interview for a position assisting Phillipe ends up being the least disastrous of the day’s registrants, as Phillipe is seen suffering through an endless parade of bumbling dufuses who want to treat him as an invalid. Driss is still rude and lazy, laughing at the opportunities of the actual job, and flirting with Phillipe’s shapely redheaded assistant, but his irreverence strikes a cord with Phillipe. Phillipe hires him, mostly to spite this disrespectful jerk, but also for somewhat more sensible reasons: he is the only applicant for the position who won’t pity Phillipe’s handicap.
Driss waffles, but he can’t shrink away from a chance at a paycheck, and begins to learn how to care for his new boss. At first, his lack of training shows, as he’s uncertain as to how Phillipe gets around, and is unwilling to help the man change and clean himself. But the three weeks an amused Phillipe has given his new employee to quit appears to have been a bit pessimistic, and Driss survives the probationary period despite no training or medical experience whatsoever. There are glimpses of the trouble at home with Driss‘ family, though given this position is a live-in job (with days off), we see very little of how this would affect the full house that depends on his financial support.
The film doesn’t miss a chance to draw a line between the sophistication of Phillipe and the simplicity of Driss. He stares, dumbfounded, as Phillipe spends thousands on abstract art that, to Driss, resembles finger painting. He attends the opera with Phillipe and cannot stop laughing and commenting loudly on the wardrobe of the actors. At worst, this behavior is appalling and rude. At best, Driss must be retarded. Phillipe, whom we are led to believe has been suffocated by living the high life from the neck up, is delighted. Do you have to guess there is a scene where Driss brays like an ass as Phillipe hires an orchestral troupe to play the classics? Did you predict that this is followed by Driss plugging in his iPod and playing ’70s R&B to Phillipe and his fellow upper-crust party guests? Was there a deleted scene where Driss swaps Phillipe’s Fellini DVDs with the “House Party” movies?
“The Intouchables” doesn’t miss a beat as far as following the formula of non-threatening crowd-pleasers, never once stooping to American conventions like heists, shootouts, sex or horrific violence, all of which, frankly, would be welcomed. Phillipe and Driss learn to grow through each others’ lives, only to find artificial obstacles to their own friendship, except that a film this dull-minded couldn’t possibly see what Driss has to bring to Phillipe, instead suggesting Driss as a matchmaker/unthreatening ethnic wingman for the paralyzed widower/rich white benefactor. His target, of course, is also well-read and well-mannered, but also quite conventionally pretty all on her own, and to Driss, the perfect sexual target for his employer/pal. It’s a crude moment, reinforcing this film’s concept of one man as knowing all the words to the book, and the other understanding the code of the street. [D+]