One of the biggest French box office hits in years and it's easy to see why, Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache's “The Intouchables” is an ingratiating and ultimately irresistible comedy, a movie that looks like it's going for maximum emotional manipulation but comes across as genuine thanks to great performances by Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy.
Philippe (Cluzet of “Tell No One”) is a stupendously wealthy man who hit a bad luck streak, losing his wife to a terminal illness and then suffering spinal injury in a freak accident. When he and his assistant Magalie (Audrey Fleurot) interview potential caregivers, the applicants are bland functionaries. Philippe needs constant care to stave off atrophy and the myriad other maladies that can impact a paralyzed man, but he is put off by the morose men looking for work.
Then a tough Senegalese immigrant named Driss (Sy) shows up, looking to just have his application rejected so he can collect unemployment. Driss is unrehearsed and not eager to impress, ready to get his paper stamped and go away. Instead, Philippe offers him the job, partly as a challenge to the young and directionless man from the Parisian projects, but also as a challenge to his own regimented life.
“The Intouchables” carries all the warning signs of being a “Driving Miss Daisy” update, a cloying oversimplification of race relations that provides easy but trite solutions to societal divides. But this is all about execution and chemistry — Cluzet and Sy each deliver magnetic, sympathetic performances using entirely different skill sets. Cluzet is remarkably expressive given the limitations of his character's movement, while Sy derives his power from a kinetic, force-of-nature presence.
There are scenes in “The Intouchables” that desperately need trimming or outright omission, particularly a dance sequence in which Driss teaches stiff rich people the joys of dancing to Earth Wind & Fire — it's almost a deal-breaker, a moment when Toledano and Nakache overplay their hands and do a “Big Chill” dishwashing-to-the-oldies scene. But given the story and the circumstances of the characters, it's a wonder that “The Intouchables” is able to feel as genuine as it does for 90 percent of its running time.
“The Intouchables” has all the earmarks of a sleeper hit, mainly because it offers a satisfying emotional arc without force-feeding those emotions. There is an inescapable joy in seeing actors hit a rhythm, and Cluzet and Sy deserve great credit for taking what could have been stock characters and giving them unexpected life.
— George Lang
Starring: Omar Sy, Francois Cluzet.
(Language and some drug use)