“The Intouchables” is a well-made French comedy-drama that despite its high production values is brought down by trite characters and plot. The filmmakers do a lot of things right, but the problem lies with the kind of movie that it is. Basically, it’s almost a good movie and yet it’s hard to imagine it being any better.
It’s about a super wealthy paraplegic who hires a young, at risk black man from the ghetto as his live-in caregiver. And wouldn’t you know it, they start to change each other’s lives. It happens to be based on a true story, and considering how that true story resembles a hokey audience pleaser, the material might have been better handled as a documentary. As a work of fiction, the material is too worn out.
Driss (Omar Sy) shows up at Philippe’s (Francois Gluzet) mansion, surrounded by ladder climbers eager to secure the live-in position to boost their social standing. After several interviews where the applicants give unbelievably bad responses, Driss barges in. He demands a signature on a welfare form saying he applied for the position and failed. He bickers with Philippe, who decides to hire him. He says it’s because Driss won’t pity him.
There is a touching scene where Driss, his first day on the job, rides the subway from the ghetto suburbs to the wealthy centre of Paris. As he rises from the underground platform to the streets we see the impeccable buildings of the wealthy city centre. For Driss, it’s like entering a completely different world.
The two start to pal around together. Philippe suffers from occasional phantom limb pain. They begin to bond, when one particularly painful night, Driss takes him out for a late night stroll and gives him some pot for the pain. Philippe introduces Driss to high culture and Driss introduces Philippe to middlebrow culture. Driss takes up painting and is told he has talent. Philippe mostly just takes up smoking. At his birthday party, Philippe introduces Driss to Vivaldi and Driss introduces him to “Earth, Wind, and Fire.” When Driss starts dancing it induces an unfortunate flashback to Chris Tucker in the “Rush Hour” movies. The movie’s soundtrack is frequently present in the background, and minus “Earth, Wind, and Fire,” is compelling.
There’s a really good scene where Philippe takes Driss paragliding. The scene is excellently photographed. The camera is side by side with the actors in the gliders. We get the actors and the scenery and the ground below in widescreen. Seeing it on the big screen is exhilarating.
There are also two sub-plots: one involving Driss’ younger cousin, Adama (Cyril Mendy), who is getting deeper and deeper into the drug trade. The other involves Philippe’s teenage daughter Elisa (Alba Gaïa Kraghede Bellugi), who’s having a hard time with her boyfriend. Prior to the introduction of her subplot, her existence is barely noted. Elisa is usually off-screen somewhere in Philippe’s mansion, and Adama is off somewhere in the suburbs. The two occasionally float into the plot, their problems are dealt with in a quick, straightforward way, and then they float off again.
The strongest quality of the movie is good casting. Driss and Philippe play off each other well. Driss is naturally charismatic and funny. He plays well off Philippe’s straight man. The humour has the charm of spontaneity that comes with improv. But, surprisingly, all the material is scripted.
The humor, however, is not enough to carry the movie. As for the drama, it’s not very moving. The lives of these two men seem like nightmares. It’s hard to imagine what life would be life if you couldn’t control your body. Or, if you‘re born into a ghetto like Driss was, where poverty and crime is the only way of life for many of its inhabitants. That doesn’t mean their symbiotic journey to happiness is automatically moving. The kind of characters these two men are, and the kind of movie this is has been exhausted. Despite its good qualities, the movie is haunted by ghosts of the hokey audience pleasers that have come before it.
**1/2 (out of 5)
David Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org