While pretty far from perfect, the inspirational “based on a true story” feel good French drama The Intouchables gets a lot of mileage out of a pair of great leading performances that can allow viewers to overlook some of the screenplay’s more maudlin touches. This tale of two troubled souls learning to love life once again after years of being knocked down either by society or physical ailments stays true to the main characters, but somewhat slights everyone around them. Then again, when you have leads as strong as the ones here, there’s not much else that such lightweight material needs.
Driss (Omar Sy), a streetwise Parisian of Senegalese descent, interviews for a job as the caregiver for a quadriplegic rich white guy named Philippe (Francois Cluzet) fully knowing that he’s unqualified for the job just so he can continue getting assistance. Philippe, on the other hand, see something in the young man that he likes: the inability of Driss to show unnecessary pity towards the once strong willed businessman and adventure enthusiast. Over time, they begin a bond that teaches Driss the nature of responsibility and Philippe how to live without fear or sadness over his current lot in life.
It’s probably easier to get the negative out of the way first for two reasons. First, being because this kind of story will be one that audiences will either buy into as being inspirational within seconds or they will mentally check out immediately at being taught life lessons they think they already know. Second, addressing the downfalls of the story will bring to greater light just why the lead performances work so well and lead to the movie being more entertaining than it probably should be.
The film spends so much time in the lives of these two characters that writer/directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano have very little time for anyone else in the story, making the peripheral supporting characters into thinly drawn caricatures and making Driss and Philippe speak for everyone else within the context of the film. We don’t know anything about anyone else other than what Driss and Philippe think of them. Admittedly, it is their story, but these characters fit into such archetypical North American story standards that it feels like the film blows off some potentially interesting side characters that only fleetingly influence their lives.
It’s also these very basic character traits that have led to the argument that the film can be seen as being somewhat racist, sexist, or ableist. For what it’s worth, I really don’t see the movie as being any of those things, but I can understand where the structure and characterization of the film can lead to such claims. Driss (who in the real life version of this tale was actually of Algerian descent, changed by the fictional film’s creators to act as a star vehicle for Sy) has the stereotypical blustery attitude from countless hood dramas, and his all too brief dealings with his family have been seen time and time again. Philippe comes across as they typical invalid simply looking for someone to believe in him as much as he believes in himself. Again, this isn’t groundbreaking stuff, which gives the film a narrow point of view. These two characters are very well fleshed out in terms of personality and mannerisms in the script, but viewers trying to look for something more outside of these two will find almost nothing.
The movie ultimately works and becomes enjoyable in spite of itself thanks largely to the efforts of the terrific Sy and Cluzet, who have effortless chemistry together. Their relationship feels wholly believable in spite of the story’s contrivances. As Driss, Sy shows how the character sometimes wants to show compassion, but how he thinks pity can only lead to more pain for the both of them. As Philippe, Cluzet has to give an emotionally and physically demanding performance without the benefit of using his body to project as a man who remains hard on the outside, but has even more crippling insecurities always bubbling beneath the surface.
An opening sequence where Driss and Philippe joy ride around in a million dollar sports car and the first dinner sequence where they bond blazed out of their skulls in a diner at 4:30 in the morning showcases their rapport. They take the formula of their basic characters and create a real chemistry between them that makes the audience want to watch them. It’s a very simple North American concept, but one that ultimately works well here since it elevates the material into something theatrical and cinematic and above that of a melodrama.
By the end of the film, the issues between these Driss and Philippe are easily resolved, but one shouldn’t expect otherwise when buying a ticket to see The Intouchables. It’s about as formulaic as moviemaking gets, but it doesn’t do harm by it or the type of audience that finds an attraction to these kinds of films. It will be heralded by some as inspirational and decried by others as being overly sentimental and incredibly basic. It’s the kind of film where there’s a very clear line that the viewer will make between what they can stomach and what they can’t. Thankfully, this one ended up on the right side of my line.