French film The Intouchables is light, slick and crowd-pleasing, offering buddy-movie laughs and sentimentality. Along the way to charming worldwide audiences, it’s also cleaned up at the overseas box office, becoming the all-time highest-grossing non-English-language film. That’s not because The Intouchables is groundbreaking or edgy or particularly artistic — it isn’t. But it is polished, feel-good entertainment with two winning performance at its center.
Omar Sy, who took home France’s version of the Best Actor Oscar (over Jean Dujardin’s turn in The Artist) owns the film with his energetic and sympathetic performance as Driss, a Sengalese man who disingenuously applies for the open position of caretaker for Phillipe (François Cluzet), a rich, white quadriplegic. He really just wants Phillipe to sign a slip of paper so he can show that he applied for the job and then collect his welfare benefit. But Phillipe, who values the young man’s brusque, pitiless demeanor, convinces Driss to take the job on a trial basis. A well-appointed bedroom and enormous bathroom add to the allure, and Driss decides to stick around. He doesn’t have much of a choice — his hardworking mother, already trying to raise her children in a tiny apartment, gives him the three degrees for thinking he could stay with her.
Bound by duty to an employer, Driss must learn to do things he’d rather not while caring for Phillipe, who wants a friend as much as he needs a caretaker. Their developing bond includes witty exchanges that illuminate the differences between the two men. Where Driss is loud, uncouth and a bold flirt, Phillipe is restrained, refined and self-conscious. Driss shoots from the hip, with blunt, instinctual appraisals of art, opera and music. But rather than rattle Phillipe, Driss’s uncensored assessments amuse him. Phillipe delights in Driss's point of view, while Driss is astonished that Phillipe, a widower, has never met the woman with whom he’s been corresponding for months on end.
Based on a true story, The Intouchables includes moments that have that inauthentic feeling of “movie magic” — as when Driss decides to liven up Phillipe’s stuffy birthday party by clearing the dance floor to shake his groove thing to Earth, Wind & Fire while his employer looks on with twinkly approval. Some may recoil at moments like these, but directors Olivier Takache and Eric Toledano make them feel fresh and Sy imbues them with his enthusiasm.
As their time together progresses, Phillipe and Driss mature emotionally — the former in his self-confidence, the latter in his empathy and sense of self-worth. That growth allows The Intouchables to resonate in its depiction of two men who, restricted in their own ways, come to own those restrictions. And without ever saying the word, both men come to love one another. But it's the laughs and zest for living that make The Intouchables enjoyable. Vive le bromance.