The Intouchables, about an unlikely friendship between a wealthy quadriplegic and a street-smart young man who becomes his caretaker and friend, won’t surprise anyone in its story of two closed-down souls whose lives take a turn when they are unexpectedly brought together. It’s a shopworn formula about opposites attracting, learning from each other and making life changes—and it couldn’t be more pleasant or enjoyable.
When we first meet mega-wealthy Parisian quadriplegic Philippe (Francois Cluzet), he’s interviewing candidates for a new caretaker—but only one catches his attention, and that’s Driss (Omar Sy), an impatient ex-con who only wants to have his court papers signed to verify that he is half-heartedly looking for employment. Whereas Philippe lives in a gorgeous, gated mansion, you guessed it—Driss is a product of the projects, and early on we learn that he’s known on the street and also has an estranged relationship from his extended immigrant family.
Driss sets up house in the mansion, and the usual culture clash occurs with the hired servants, whom he befriends and who take a liking to his joie de vivre. Philippe does as well. We learn that Philippe suffered a hang-gliding accident, rendering him nearly helpless—so much so that Driss, to his dismay, has to help facilitate all body functions. Will it come as a surprise to anyone that a hang-gliding session figures prominently in the second half of the film?
The film explores the bud of friendship between the two men, who could not be more different but find common ground. Driss brings the pleasure of pot smoking, massage therapists and Kool and the Gang to Philippe, and Philippe gives Driss a home and security and identity as his confidant, even teaching the young man the finer points of art dealing. It’s all very easy as it goes, and the radiant Sy, with his mile-wide smile and aura of goodwill, wraps himself around us as much as he does Philippe. Sy was awarded last year’s Cesar over The Artist’s Jean Dujardin, and that’s really saying something about the wattage of his charisma here.
No one can accuse the filmmakers, Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, of subtlety, placing an African immigrant with a lot of soul into a hoi polloi birthday party, disrupting the stuffiness with R&B. Yet despite some obviousness, these characters grow on us, and while Driss might be perceived as a stereotype (perhaps more here in America), the heart of the film is pure enough—two people drawn to each other out of mutual need who surprise themselves with a relationship miles further than what either expected.
The Intouchables, a runaway hit all over Europe, has its heart fixed in the right place and features two moving performances. Cluzet, acting with his eyes and voice, musters much sympathy, especially in a late-night restaurant sojourn where he describes the crushing impact of his wife’s demise. The film builds to a transcendent final scene, a single shot out of a window that couldn’t be more affecting.
If none of this seems terribly groundbreaking, The Intouchables scores with two highly engaging performances that carry us breezily through the formula. In the end, the film generates an elation in the viewer most “better” films don’t come close to—through a deceptively simple story of human need, sharing and how people grow to love each other. And I grew to love this movie.