The French film The Intouchables has cleaned up at the French box office and may duplicate that feat on the art house circuit in the U.S. In fact, this may be that rare subtitled film that goes beyond the art house realm to attract more mainstream audiences. I wouldn’t be in the least surprised, because this fact-based, odd couple/buddy comedy is every inch the crowd-pleaser. The only stumbling block I can see — apart from the singularly awful poster that makes it look like The Bucket List by way of some faith-based goo-fest — lies in the number of critics who are determined to view the film in terms of its racial components. What strikes me as strange about this is that the issue of race between its two main players — François Cluzet and Omar Sy — is all but nonexistent. The gulf that separates them is strictly in the area of class boundaries. Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that even that conflict is as old as the hills (or at least as old as Frank Capra). But the fact is, it still works — and I’ve rarely seen it work any better than it does here with this tale of a fabulously wealthy quadriplegic, Philippe (Cluzet) and his totally inappropriate caregiver, Driss (Sy). But there’s more to it than that.
The Intouchables is, in fact, probably the most clear-eyed look at this kind of disability I’ve ever seen in the movies. In my late teens and early 20s, one of my best friends, Frank Elkins, was a quadriplegic. Like the character in the film, he had no use for pity — including self-pity. The relationship between Philippe and Driss, comes across as largely authentic in terms of my personal experience. Of course, there are some false points — the bit with the scalding tea is ludicrous — but in all, the film has the stamp of reality. It is perhaps the first film about a disabled person I can imagine Frank would have liked.
Maybe the fact that I can relate to the film’s approach to its disabled character and the depiction of his friendship with his caregiver causes me to let slide the old-fashioned buddy-comedy nature of The Intouchables (not to mention the whole Capra-esque schtick of the poor teaching the rich how to enjoy life). I don’t know. I do know, however, that this odd-couple yarn works far more than it doesn’t — and it’s pretty savvy about it. The most interesting aspect of it is that it often seems to me that rich white Philippe is much more the cliché than poor black Driss. It’s no wonder that Driss is bored by Philippe’s incredibly parochial taste in classical music (or that he can recognize pieces from TV advertising or on-hold phone music), but it’s interesting that his own tastes run toward Kool and the Gang and Earth, Wind, and Fire, neither or which are exactly flavor of the month bands. Little things like this keep the film from being quite the cookie-cutter affair it could have been.
Ultimately, it’s a film that works thanks to the performances of the two leads and their interactions. Never for a moment does either actor seem slightly false — even when the film is at its most obviously manipulative. They earn our respect and our fondness for their characters at every turn. And that’s something that has nothing to do with easy manipulation. Rated R for language and some drug use.