Title: The Intouchables
Directors: Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano
Starring: Francois Cluzet, Omar Sy, Anne Le Ny, Audrey Fleurot, Alba Gaia Bellugi
Already an international smash, to the tune of an incredible $340 million, “The Intouchables” arrives on American shores having picked up nine Cesar Award nominations, multiple prizes at the recent COLCOA Festival in Los Angeles, and smiles and hearts in just about every territory in which it has opened. It’s easy to see why. A rich, buoyant tale about the simple act of human connection and how it makes the heart sing, co-directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s fun, witty dramedy is an unabashed crowd-pleaser, spanning languages and cultures.
Based on a true story and set in present-day France, “The Intouchables” chronicles the deepening relationship between a classic odd-ball couple. Philippe (Francois Cluzet) is a multi-millionaire handicapped from the neck down, the result of a paragliding accident that broke two of his vertebrae. Consequently, he requires round-the-clock care. Looking to fill a position and fed up with the usual caretakers, and all the pretense and pity that come along with their service, Philippe rolls the dice on Driss (Omar Sy), a Senegal-born ex-convict who initially answers a job posting just to get a signature so that he may continue collecting governmental assistance.
Kicked out of his crowded apartment home by his mother, Driss is cheeky and derisive, but possessing of a garrulous, friendly nature that can’t long leave him at odds with his new employer or the household’s other help, including maid and cook Yvonne (Anne Le Ny) and comely redhead scheduler Magalie (Audrey Fleurot). The pair are wildly different, but find a common ground in their humor, and the fact that Driss seems to frequently forget his benefactor’s condition, holding out a phone for him to answer. Taking Philippe for strolls in Paris during the midnight hour, he introduces him to marijuana, and also ditches the stodgy handicapped-enabled van for one of Philippe’s racy sports cars. Driss pushes Philippe toward the edges of his comfort zone — including finally trying to arrange an in-person meeting with a woman with whom he’s been corresponding — and learns a few life lessons from his boss as well.
Everything that is right about “The Intouchables” starts with its two wonderful leads. Sy, the Cesar Best Actor award winner, has an effusive personality, while Cluzet (who faintly recalls Dustin Hoffman in his expressive eyes and wry smiles) provides a deft, counterbalancing quiet charm in the more physically constrictive role. Their rapport is impeccable.
It helps, too, that the film treats Philippe’s condition somewhere between “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and “The Bucket List,” which is to say with seriousness but not a grim subjectivity. It’s not necessarily terminal, his state, but while “The Intouchables” leans to the uplifting irreverence of the aforementioned, latter Morgan Freeman-Jack Nicholson boomer bait, it feels less laboriously manufactured, and a bit more honest. Yes, there it peddles a certain freedom in “letting go,” but when Driss is dressing down Philippe over the inflated price of his artwork or boredom of opera, and Driss and Philippe are exchanging musical educations via classical orchestrations and Earth Wind & Fire, it feels laced with an electric authenticity.
For all the engagement of the material, Toledano and Nakache don’t quite settle upon a unifying visual scheme and template; the movie is a bit flatly shot and stitched together, quite honestly, which gives the proceedings a bit of a boxed-in, small screening feeling at times. A bit of subplot with Philippe’s teenage daughter Elisa (Alba Gaia Bellugi) doesn’t really play, either. Still, Cluzet and Sy are such a fine engaging pair that this treat is greater than the sum of its parts, and easily one of the year’s more baldly enjoyable films to date.
Written by: Brent Simon