The Intouchables currently stands as the second highest grossing French film in French history, which is less impressive when you learn the true champ is a wacky fish-out-of-water comedy called Welcome to the Sticks. (A Will Smith remake languishes in development hell.) That alone should sound alarm bells, and that’s before you discover its quasi-offensive plot: A ridiculously rich dude (François Cluzet), handicapped from the neck down, learns the value of life upon hiring a funny black guy (Omar Sy) as his man-servant.
To its credit, The Intouchables—presumably quite liberally based on real people—isn’t in practice offensive. It isn’t The Toy, the infamous comedy (remade from a French film, actually) in which Jackie Gleason buys Richard Pryor to entertain his snotty son. Writers/directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano never delve into the racial aspects of their protagonists’ relationship, and only flirt with class issues. It’s more a case of temperament: Cluzet’s Philippe has a stick up his ass and Sy’s Driss is the unfailing bundle of energy to remove it. We’re told Driss, of Senegalese descent, is hot off a six-month prison stint and we see him engage in minor (comic) larceny. But Sy—who predictably won the César, France’s Oscar-analog—is the least convincing ex-con in screen history. He’s such an endearing sparkplug that it’s obvious when Philippe, a grump who regularly goes through caretakers like water, instantly hires him despite his sketchy CV.
What follows is your classic scientifically-tested comedy-drama: 75 percent easy jokes, 25 percent easy heartstring-yanks. The comedy is mostly slobs vs. snobs: Watch as Driss snickers at modern art, at the opera, at every pretension in Philippe’s cloistered, moneyed existence. (The apex/nadir finds Driss teaching a room of richies to disco. Surprisingly, no monocles were harmed in this scene.) For the seasoned crowd pleasing movie grump, it’s almost annoying that Sy, despite learning way too hard on likability, is still very likable, and that the relationship between Driss and Philippe is often genuinely, comfortably moving. (That’s in large part to Cluzet, who underplays beyond simply not moving more than his head.) The Intouchables is not “good” but neither is it risible. All its detractors can do, apart from resisting it, is point out that nothing much happens. It’s the tale of two unlikely friends who instantly click and continue clicking until there’s something like an ending.