There are plenty of reasons not to like The Intouchables, but Omar Sy’s terrific performance blows right past them.
The film, based on a true story and co-written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, has almost no conflict once it gets going, no traction to help the story take hold. Once you see where it’s headed, it becomes increasingly obvious the movie is exactly you what expect it to be: A freewheeling black man (Sy) from the streets will show the rich, paralyzed white man (Tell No One’s François Cluzet) how to open up and really appreciate life.
But Sy is just so enjoyable to watch—and Cluzet in a much trickier role also is outstanding—that the story’s faults fall away. Not completely, maybe, but enough.
Driss (Sy) first meets Philippe (Cluzet) when he applies to be Philippe’s caretaker. Only not really—Driss just wants to get a paper signed that he tried to get a job, so he can keep his unemployment checks coming. But his mouthy attitude and relentless flirtation with Philippe’s assistant Magalie (Audrey Fleurot) intrigues Philippe. To the shock of everyone who works for Philippe—and to the worry of his friends and associates—he persuades Driss to try the job on a temporary basis.
Fine by Driss. He gets his own palatial room—with a bathtub!—in Philippe’s Paris mansion, he eats well and figures he’ll just skate by until it’s time to move on.
Things don’t work out that way, of course. For one, the job is harder than Driss realized, and more is expected of him. Philippe can’t move from the neck down, so he faces all sorts of medical challenges, most of which Driss isn’t particularly enthused about helping him with. But he comes around, as we know he must.
Meanwhile, the spark Philippe saw in Driss comes into full bloom. Forget driving him around in a stodgy old van—Driss insists on loading Philippe into the souped-up sports car that is part of Philippe’s fleet, and tools him around Paris. A stodgy classical-music concert turns into an Earth, Wind & Fire dance session. The occasional marijuana cigarette is added unofficially to Philippe’s long list of required medicines. Middle-of-the-night walks and trips to the opera—where Driss’ ridiculing of the proceedings offends others but delights Philippe—are taken. Driss also encourages, and then demands, that Philippe meet the woman with whom he has had a longtime relationship by mail.
The staff also falls under Driss’ spell; it’s reminiscent of Down and Out in Beverly Hills (itself inspired by the French film Boudu Saved From Drowning) when a homeless man shakes up the household, first scandalizing them but eventually making each member happier.
There’s not a single surprise here, nothing unexpected, at least not until late in the movie, and, even then, it’s more a matter of out-of-the-blue developments to give the story an ending. Yet along the way, Sy is so much fun to watch, as he schools the uptight rich folks in the ways of enjoying life, that his enthusiasm is contagious. (The film is hugely popular in France; Sy won the Cesar, the French equivalent of an Oscar, for his performance, beating out Jean Dujardin and others.)
Cluzet’s performance is, of course, different; he must convey everything from the shoulders up, and he does so very well. Treated with kid gloves since becoming paralyzed, Philippe longs for thrills and adventure, and knows that a free spirit like Driss is the person who can provide them. Among the other performers, Anne Le Ny is especially good as a household assistant who finds fun and romance, thanks to Driss.
There are complexities of race and class conflict that go largely unexplored here, which might have made for a more satisfying film. But there’s a real give-and-take between Sy and Cluzet, two performances that make the film, despite its shortcomings, well worth seeking out.
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