On paper, The Intouchables looks pretty amazing: It is the third highest grossing film in France; the highest grossing French film in Germany; it has held the No. 1 spot in many countries around the world; and has grossed (worldwide) $356 million. In addition, it has won a variety of awards, including a Cesar Award for Omar Sy’s performance; and has become this year’s highest grossing foreign language film in North America, surpassing the Oscar winner A Separation. Pretty impressive, non?
Before I had even stepped foot into the cinema to see this French comedy, I was aware of the buzz surrounding it, and I had seen the trailer. Neither of these had convinced me that I was in for a tremendous cinematic experience. And, to behonest, I was not overly enamored with the film. In fact, if I had been watching it at home, on DVD, I probably would have switched it off at the midpoint. Why? I’ll get to that in a moment.
First, a synopsis: Based on a true story, The Intouchables is about the unlikely friendship that develops between an aristocratic, quadriplegic millionaire, Philippe (Francois Cluzet), and his caretaker, Driss (Sy), a Senegalese émigré with a criminal record. (In reality, his caretaker, as we see briefly at the end of the film, was named Abdel Sellou, a “short Arab,” in his own words, originally from Algeria. Why the filmmakers changed this detail is beyond me.)
Now, why I disliked the film that everyone else seems to love: I had a very difficult time warming to Driss. He was cocky, had a chip on his shoulder, was trying to bed every female (at times, his actions would be considered sexual harassment), and was a powder keg waiting to go off. He was unapologetically criminal, and I bristled at that. His personality was the primary source of “comedy” for the film, and because I found him so offensive as a person, I didn’t find the film to be funny in the slightest. For instance, the opening sequence shows him and Philippe speeding through traffic. When they attract the attention of the police, Driss lies, telling them that Philippe is having an attack. (Philippe “plays along.”) Eventually, the police apologize and give the men an escort to the emergency room, even calling ahead to make sure that someone will greet them with a gurney. As the emergency staff rush out to the sports car, Driss speeds off, proud that he’s outsmarted the police and, apparently, the hospital staff. The audience members around me roared with laughter during this sequence. I, of course, sat there stone-faced, primarily because if this happened in real life, and some jokester prevented someone who really needed emergency services from getting that care, it could result in a tragedy. And to those who say: “Oh come on, it’s only a movie. Lighten up.” I can’t. Simply put, as a comedy, The Intouchables didn’t work for me, primarily because I don’t find rude, obnoxious, offensive, or idiotic characters funny. And, I find it difficult laughing at someone who is disabled.
Despite the fact that this is “based on a true story,” I found the film to be very contrived and formulaic. It has that “rich guy meets poor guy and realizes what it truly means to live” feel about it. Sort of Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986) for a new generation. (Interesting that it was itself a remake of a French play Boudu sauve des eaux.) Not surprisingly, I didn’t like Down and Out, either, primarily because I don’t believe that any rich person on this planet could ever learn lessons from the poor and down-trodden. That’s some kind of pablum sold to working class audiences by Richie Rich filmmakers. If being poor was such a treat then why doesn’t every rich person give away his fortune to be truly happy. Truly insulting these films.
Another way in which the film is formulaic is that it contains an obligatory dance sequence, during which the very “street” Driss lightens up/shocks the snooty and uptight, very white, guests by getting them to get their groove on to Earth, Wind and Fire. I’m pretty sure that I rolled my eyes the minute everyone took to the dance floor. When will these kinds of sequences stop showing up in films?
Seeing as how this film contains EVERYTHING that Hollywood comedies require for being a bona fide hit, it didn’t surprise me in the slightest that Tinseltown has already acquired the rights for a remake. I’m thinking Eddie Murphy for the part of Driss. Or maybe they can change the gender and get Queen Latifah to play that role. After all, hasn’t she already played a variation on the character in Bringing Down the House? (2003) Someone contact Steve Martin’s agent.
If I disliked The Intouchables so much, why didn’t I just walk out? Because underneath all of the cliché, formula, and Hollywood pandering, writers/directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano have a very tender and touching story. And the credit for that warm center goes, not to Sy, but to Cluzet, who was really the only one who kept me watching until the end. He’s a phenomenal actor, something I learned three years ago, when I saw him in the white-knuckle crime/drama/mystery, Tell No One (2006). A lot of people have remarked how much Cluzet is the spitting-image of Dustin Hoffman – although younger and much taller. If anything, Cluzet certainly has Hoffman’s talent. As Phillipe, he has only his face, and voice, to convey emotion. He’s a man trapped inside of his own body. Kind of like Jean-Dominique Bauby in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007). And he does a brilliant job at it. By the end, I was crying for him.
The character itself is pretty tragic. He lost his wife to cancer, and he, himself, became paralyzed after a paragliding accident. He’s lonely and dejected, believing that no woman could love him for who he is. His only real “relationship” is with a Dunkirk woman with whom he’s been corresponding for years. Driss forces him to take everything to the next level. As for Driss, we are supposed to feel sorry for him, because of his circumstances. I had a difficult time connecting to him. If you want to see the hard life of immigrants, watch Biutiful (2010) instead.
I can’t wholeheartedly champion The Intouchables for all of the reasons I’ve listed, but I can say that I ended up “liking” it in spite of myself. Once the film stops trying to be hilarious and focuses more on the relationship between the two men, it shows real heart, and sadly, demonstrates how much better it could have been had it refrained from trying to be a Hollywood film as made by the French.
The Intouchables opens Friday, July 27, at the Dundee Theatre.
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