The Intouchables hits so many audience-pleasing buttons, meticulously and dutifully, that it ought to be called The Irresistibles. This is the French movie you’ve been hearing about, a megahit in its native country and currently spreading across Europe like a cheerful, robust strain of flu. Based on a true story about a wheelchair-bound rich guy and his caretaker, a small-time crook from the projects, The Intouchables is a movie about life, love and the enduring power of Earth Wind & Fire. You have been forewarned.
Actually, The Intouchables isn’t bad — its merely shameless, but at least it’s overtly so. The picture, written and directed by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, stars François Cluzet as Philippe, the lonely wheelchair guy. Philippe is paralyzed from the neck down, the victim of a paragliding accident; he also lost his beloved wife years ago and is left with only a wiseacre teenage daughter who barely features in the story (she’s played, in a few fleeting, pouty scenes, by Alba Gaïa Kraghede Bellugi) and a houseful of servants, some of whom — like the super-efficient Yvonne (played by the earthbound and appealing Anne Le Ny) — seem to actually care for him.
But Philippe also needs a strong, masculine caretaker, and when a strapping Senegalese fellow named Driss (Omar Sy) applies for the job, he’s hired almost against his own wishes. (He’d shown up for the interview at Philippe’s tony Paris mansionette only to get his papers signed, showing that he’d attempted to find work, in order to receive state benefits.) Philippe is an aesthete, a lover of fine art and classical music, and he has everything money can buy. But he needs a pal and a few laughs, as well as a companion who will treat him normally and not like a freak. When a concerned friend, suspicious of Driss and his motives, warns Philippe, “These street people have no pity,” Philippe responds firmly, “That’s what I want — no pity.”
Driss, for his part, provides Philippe with more Live! Laugh! Love! moments than you or I could possibly count, despite the fact that he comes from a tough neighborhood and has some unresolved family troubles. And even though he steals a precious Fabergé egg — one with great sentimental value — from Philippe’s collection of same, the two form an indissoluble bond. Driss cheers Philippe up with his bad puns, he grins and/or dances infectiously whenever he hears “September” or “Boogie Wonderland,” and he helps Philippe court a new lady love. Philippe gradually loses his glum demeanor (Cluzet is really good at the glum stuff) and becomes guardedly cheerful, enjoying life for the first time in eons.
Not much else happens in The Intouchables, though not much else needs to. The movie has the carefully calibrated inner workings of a watch movement: As it efficiently ticks away, it speaks to everything we want and need to believe about human frailty and the importance of connection. Toledano and Nakache keep the gears running smoothly — to their credit, they don’t throw in any moments of serious endangerment in order to up the drama quotient. (They were inspired to make the film after seeing a documentary about the real-life Philippe, Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, and his relationship with a man named Abdel, a young guy from the projects who came to work for him and changed his life around.)
The friendship between Philippe and Driss, as the filmmakers present it, certainly is solid and life-changing, on both sides. I hesitate to use the term “magical Negro” because I think the term is too carelessly slapped onto any story in which white people learn something from people of color. Even in our racially mixed world — particularly here in the United States — the reality is that most white people live mostly around other white people, and sometimes it really does take an encounter with someone whose life, and whose skin color, is not like yours to shake things up. If you ask me, those encounters are less magical than they are necessary.
That said, there is something a little magical about Driss, but that could be just because Sy is a charming, criminally likable presence. Sy has worked extensively in French movies and television, and he appeared in a previous feature made by Toledano and Nakache, the 2006 comedy Those Happy Days. (He also appeared in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2009 whimsical windup toy Micmacs.) Sy makes The Intouchables worth watching, not because he adequately fulfills any perceived notion of the joyful person of color, but because he quite simply seems filled with joy. He earns bonus points for maintaining such boundless joie de vivre even as he spends so much time hanging around a French sourpuss like Cluzet’s Philippe. The Intouchables is not particularly complex, but it certainly hits its target. Whether or not you want that target hit is up to you. Meanwhile, Sy’s performance almost makes you forget how calculated the whole thing is. Plus, Driss is damn right about Earth Wind & Fire.