Thursday, May 31, 2012

A crowd-pleaser from France

There's certainly a need for a movie that takes a serious look at the way French traditionalists interact with the new and racially diverse residents of their sometimes tumultuous country. The Intouchables flirts with the subject, but seems far more interested in humor and charm than in any deep probing.

Still, the movie benefits from a premise with a bit of topical kick: A young Senegalese man (Omar Sy) winds up working for a wealthy Frenchmen (Francois Cluzet) who's paralyzed from the neck down.

Directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, who also wrote the screenplay, give a crowd-pleasing, odd-couple twist to a bromance that's greatly aided by Sy's vibrant performance as Driss, a young ex-convict who approaches the world with disarming candor.

Not one to filter his remarks, Driss reacts to almost every situation with engaging immediacy and down-to-earth intelligence. Driss can't entirely escape stereotyping, but then neither can Cluzet's Philippe, an aristocratic type who likes classical music, art and literature.

Drisss meets Philippe almost by accident. While going through the motions of job-hunting (in order to maintain government benefits), Driss stumbles into a position that involves caring for Philippe. He doesn't condescend to Philippe or censor himself when it comes to discussing his boss's disability, and Philippe seems to enjoy Driss's lack of reserve.

As the movie progresses, Driss and Philippe develop a convincing friendship, and there are scenes that are both pointed and funny: Driss accompanying Philippe to the opera or Driss deciding to try his hand at painting after learning that some abstract art fetches insanely high prices.

The Intouchables takes Driss seriously, although it can't resist putting him into a predictable situation in which he brings Earth Wind and Fire and party-down dancing to the high-culture crowd.

Those with familiar with French cinema will not be surprised to learn that Cluzet gives a wry and sometimes mischievous performance as a man paralyzed in a paragliding accident. Philippe may be physically helpless, but Cluzet shows that he's not above exerting other kinds of power; he enjoys toying with Driss.

The movie announces at the outset that it's based on a true story, and the real people are shown during the closing credits. It's then that we discover Driss was based on Abdel, an Arab. Knowing who Driss really was made me wonder why the filmmakers changed his ethnicity.

I have no ready answer, but the question sent me out of the theater scratching my head instead of basking in the glow of the friendship the movie so ably creates.

Oh well, despite its frank acknowledgements of Philippe's physical problems and its refusal to ignore Driss's life in a Parisian housing project, The Intouchables comes off as light, feel-good entertainment carried by two gifted actors who simply refuse to be defeated by cliche.

No comments: