The Intouchables debuted last year in France and quickly became the second most successful French film at their box office, and in doing so, the feel-good comedy about the friendship between a quadriplegic millionaire and his caretaker — a poor black guy from the Paris projects — raised few eyebrows and stirred little controversy. The movie was, however, so successful that it became part of the national conversation there, helping to provide an alternative to the Sarkozy narrative on race, immigration, and the wealthy.
In America, on the other hand, it’s been seen as racist by at least one critic, who unfortunately has become the defining American voice on the film. Jay Weissberg from Variety accused the filmmakers of trafficking in “Uncle Tom racism,” noting that the black character, Driss, embodied “all the usual stereotypes about class and race,” stereotypes that never occurred to 45 million Europeans that saw the film before Weissberg.
The directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, for obvious reasons, were stung by the accusation that the character played by Omar Sy — who won the French equivalent of the Oscar for his role — embodied racist stereotypes, particularly given that the movie is based on a true story. “You have to give a question to your mind before to say bulls**t like this,” Toledana said in an interview with MSN. “This is a movie that is fighting against racism and to give hope and a new look about each other … To get an article like this and a review like this, perhaps [you are] a little duped about yourself.”
Though the allegations of racism never occurred to me in watching the film, knowing that the Weinstein Company — which released The Intouchables stateside — are already developing an American remake did strike some worry that perhaps a Chris Tucker remake with, say, Adam Sandler, would tackle the socioeconomics of The Intouchables central relationship with the blunt force of a backseat hate f*ck. I’m concerned, too, that they’ll take a film with already fairly broad strokes and embiggen them.
The Intouchables is not a particularly smart or complex movie, but it is a winning one. Omar Sy plays Driss, a Senegalese ex-con living in the projects. He applies for a job as Phillippe’s caretaker because he knows he won’t get it, and he needs three job rejections before he can receive his benefits. Philippe, exhausted with the same brand of pitying, humorless caretakers that never stay on for more than a few months, decides to give Driss a shot, in part because Driss doesn’t show him any pity. In fact, Driss is not shy about making Philippe’s disability a source of comedy, and often forgets about his disability long enough to treat him like a real person.
Aside from some initial misgivings over having to fit him with leggings each morning (for blood flow) and evacuate his bowels by hand, Driss grows into a capable and compassionate caretaker. He and Philippe form an unlikely bond, and exchange socioeconomic interests in the manner you’d expect from this kind of film: Philippe introduces Driss to classical music, opera and abstract painting, and Driss introduces Philippe to marijuana, hookers, and Kool and the Gang. The contrivances are straight out of the Hollywood playbook, but Sy and François Cluzet shroud them in honesty.
Driss also provides Philippe assistance in returning to the dating world, while Philippe presents Driss with a lot of unfamiliar experiences: They fly in a private jet, they go paragliding, and they get around is expensive sports cars. And yes, while Driss does work as a caretaker for a wealthy white man, it’s a far cry from Viola Davis in The Help. He’s never subjugated; in fact, it is the quadriplegic Philippe in the position of inferiority, but Nakache and Toledano do a remarkable job of presenting them on equal footing. Both characters gain from the experience: Driss become a responsible adult, qualities he takes back to his own family, and Philippe develops a sense of humor and a reason for living. Charges of racism are absurd particularly for a film like The Intouchables so sincere in its attempts to show both socioeconomic and racial diversity.
Ultimately, it’s a fairly predictable film, but the familiar beats and tropes do little to detract from the Omar Sy and François Cluzet’s outstanding performances, nor the movie’s large heart. It’s a crowd-pleaser, very funny at times, and a rousing testament to the transformative power a single friendship. My only real quibble with The Intouchables is that the prologue scene at the end of the film showing the two real people upon whom the film is based has a funny way of stealing some of the affection I felt for the honest depictions of the fictional characters.