When Hollywood gets around to remaking the hit French film "The Intouchables," it won’t be much different. An upbeat, crowd-pleasing buddy comedy based on true events, this is the slickest foreign film I’ve seen in a while.
But dig past the obvious attempts at wide audience appeal, and "Intouchables" is still an effective movie that rides on great chemistry between its two leads, who develop an affecting bond on screen.
Francois Cluzet, whom U.S. audiences might remember as the harried protagonist of the Hitchcockian "Tell No One," plays Philippe, a cultured millionaire paralyzed from the neck down in a paragliding accident. Confined to his estate, he relies on a caregiver for the most basic of tasks to get through the day.
The caregivers, whom Philippe hires and fires with regularity, are timid, colorless men intimidated both by Philippe’s wealth and his condition. But that’s not the case with Driss (Omar Sy), a loud-mouthed Senegalese immigrant who assumes he won’t get the job; he just applies so he can collect unemployment benefits from the government.
There’s something about Driss that amuses Philippe, the way he slouches in the mansion’s elegant chairs, refusing to show pity or even compassion. You get the sense that Philippe was kind of a self-involved jerk himself in his younger days, and admires that same brashness in Driss.
He hires Driss for the job, and you know pretty much where things will go from there. Driss' spirit allows Philippe to loosen up and enjoy life a little, whether it’s toking on a few puffs of Driss' marijuana, or shocking the stuffed shirts at Philippe’s refined birthday party by hauling out Earth, Wind and Fire tunes.
In turn, taking care of Philippe forces Driss to accept more responsibility. It’s like "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" reimagined as "Finding Forrester."
But if the structure is formulaic, the film works because of its easygoing pace, its genuine humor, and especially those two lead performances. Cluzet may have the more difficult task of the two, permitted to use only his face to express Philippe’s emotions. But he easily conveys the loneliness of Philippe’s condition along with his merriment at Driss’ blunt tactics.
And Sy, who upset Jean Dujardin’s performance in "The Artist" for the Cesar, France’s top acting honor, is just a lot of fun as Driss. Callous, almost cheerfully sociopathic in the opening scenes, Sy shows Driss' emotional growth through his friendship with Philippe without losing that rough-around-the-edges charm.
There are moments where it seems writer-directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano were worried "The Intouchables" might be too much of a downer given its subject matter, and they lean too far the other way to pump up the film. That’s especially true in the opening scene, out of sequence with the rest of the movie, in which Driss and Philippe go on a joyride in Philippe’s Maserati and outwit the cops chasing them.
It’s a fun scene, to be sure. But putting it at the front of the film, then backtracking to before the pair even met risks robbing the film of its dramatic drive. Fortunately, the acting is strong enough that it works anyway.