On the surface, The Intouchables sounds like another trite, feel-good movie about a mismatched pair of unlikely friends, who come together to inspire each other despite overwhelming odds. Or, maybe it’s a remake of The Untouchables with an unfortunate typo.
But it’s not about sending anyone to the Chicago morgue, and your everyday buddy movie simply doesn’t achieve the enormous box office haul that’s been amassed by this French drama, which has reportedly earned more than $280 million before even opening stateside.
So The Intouchables has clearly hit unique nerve. After all, it’s not a big, expensive blockbuster or a sequel to a mega-popular franchise. Still, the formula for success here, perfected by co-directors/writers Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano, is clear: Find characters worth caring about, cast actors who are adept at making you feel for them and surround the stars with an inspirational narrative centered on meaningful, affecting human growth.
Omar Sy plays the aimless Driss, who’s entirely unsure of what to do with his life after being released from prison. Ultra-wealthy quadriplegic Philippe (François Cluzet) is looking for a new caretaker. The hardheaded, demanding Driss halfheartedly applies for the job, never expecting to get it. But Philippe is struck by his tough manner, specifically his refusal to treat Philippe differently than he would someone with a fully-functional body.
Driss is hired and moves into Philippe’s lavish Parisian estate. From there the movie sets off through familiar coming-of-age/mutual healing territory. But throughout the trek, the film never loses touch with its fundamental grounding in dramatic authenticity. The filmmakers ably chart the ways each man helps fix the other. Small, tender scenes detailing the complex processes Driss must follow while caring for Philippe are given the same weight as the characters’ humorous conversations about women or music, or the methods with which the patient empowers his caretaker to turn his life around.
The movie further enhances the power of that shared journey by boasting a strong sense of place and a well-crafted visual style that never let you forget the considerable differences in the protagonists’ backgrounds. Philippe’s opulent, antiques-laden home starkly contrasts with the drab, crowded apartment occupied by Driss’ family. The classical music Philippe prefers clashes with Driss’ love for R&B. The film, then, achieves considerable emotional highs when the characters come together to share an experience, as when Philippe takes Driss hang gliding high above the rolling hills of the countryside.
More than anything, though, The Intouchables owes a big chunk of that $280 million success to its actors. Sy and Cluzet augment the well-crafted script with full-fledged, big-hearted performances that make it easy to care for their characters. They transcend whatever formulaic underpinnings might be there by opting for empathetic naturalistic takes that hone in on the deeper, humane truths at the core of each man’s experience. Driss needs to know that he’s capable of contributing to something important. Philippe wants to feel whole again. And the actors are never less than genuine as they construct the powerful bond that propels each man toward that cathartic place.
The Upside: Terrific performances and an emotionally-affecting screenplay are the big highlights here.
The Downside: There’s not much of one, but I guess if you had to come up with something, there’s no question we’ve seen elements of the movie before.
On the Side: The movie has been extraordinarily successful (some reports peg it as the highest-grossing foreign-language film of all time. It’s also been a bit of a hot button, as Variety decried what it deemed (thoroughly incorrectly, in my humble opinion), the film’s “Uncle Tom racism.” There’s certainly a lot more to talk about here than there is in most straightforward character dramas.