The Intouchables

4 out of 5

Directed by: Olivier Nakache & Éric Toledano

Yeah, this is one of those feel good movies; an odd couple comedy in which opposite walks of life – he’s a black dude from the streets! he’s a snooty rich white guy! – are brought together, and learn life lessons from one another, saying strikingly poignant things, and there’s some tragedy, and then we celebrate life, and we shed some tears and it’s based on a true story and so we all, y’know, feel good. It’s one of the highest grossing movies in its home country of France; it was remade 200 times; it… seemed to get a lukewarm reception once it made its way to other countries…

Did you wrinkle your nose just at the hint of the genre, and then continue to upgrade the intensity of that response as you went along? Yeah, I hear ya, and I suspect that’s kind of what happened when the initial sheen of the movie wore off and it spread out to international reviewers, and perhaps had I seen it during that wake of popularity, I might’ve had a similar response. Maybe.

But here’s the thing: besides The Intouchables being well made, and perfectly cast, I’d say it avoids some of the more flagrant touches of “feel good”s, allowing its positives to remain as such throughout its whole runtime. It’s certainly a crowd pleaser, and largely ignorant of some potentially deeper issues it touches upon, but writers / directors Olivier Nakache & Éric Toledano don’t attempt to pretend otherwise, and their actors, cinematographer (Mathieu Vadepied), editor (Reynald Bertrand), and composer (Ludovico Einaudi) are all on that same wavelength, wholly preventing the movie from ever touching on an emotion that doesn’t feel properly served by the crowd-pleasing approach.

Our odd couple are Phillipe (François Cluzet), a rich, relatively solitary quadriplegic looking to hire a new caregiver- his needs seem to make this position a 2-4 week revolving door of hires – and Driss (Omar Sy), an ex-con doing the rounds on job interviews just so he can check off a list of to-dos to get welfare benefits. Movie magic allows us to see the click of these two right away: Driss is rude but direct, clearly not intending to / expecting to get the job, and Phillipe is tired of people with cloudy motivations for caregiving, and who tend to prance around his disability. And so Driss is hired, winkily nudged into it by turning it into a dare of sorts: I bet you can’t last a week doing this.

Cue the montage: Driss is wowed by the luxurious digs in which he’ll be staying; he’s reluctant to get in to some of the more intimate business of caregiving; he’s distracted by pretty girls when he should be working; and the two, inevitably, begin to bond as Phillipe is revitalized by Driss’ spirit and Driss seems to vibe on having something to throw himself in to.

It’s all pretty shallow, of course: we don’t touch on class discrepancies, or if there’s any race commentary here; there’s not too much exploration of either character’s motivations. But again, the film is actually better for not trying to address those things, because… they’re huge, and no gladhanding cutesy film script is going to be able to manage them. Instead, The Intouchables comes across as rather matter-of-fact: these two guys happened into one another’s lives due to circumstance, and they really get along. And all of those cliches I mentioned above – dashes of tragedy; life lessons doled out – they’re not here. That’s not to say the film is all laughs, as it certainly acknowledges the emotional and physical struggles Phillipe suffers through, but it’s part of that matter-of-fact tone, in which the movie doesn’t milk it for sympathy. It’s just part of his day, and it’s part of what Driss accepts as part of his friendship with the man. On these terms, the script is incredibly organic, and Cluzet and Sy imbue their characters with immense believability to serve that, not to mention tons of charm.

There is surely a more nuanced take on this relationship that takes in to account all of the deeper sociological issues through which it tiptoes. I think Cluzet and Sy could even carry that, but it would still be a very tricky film to make, and The Intouchables, instead, plays it safe. But that “safe” is smartly done: it’s not scrubbed clean of any blemishes, rather just sort of welcoming them in, but focusing on, like, feeling good. Eventually, one must address those things they’ve welcomed in, but for these two hours, I felt okay just laughing along with our odd couple and enjoying myself.