It’s easy to see why “The Intouchables” is a box-office phenomenon in its native France. The film is a rousing crowd-pleaser, moving and very funny.
Based on a true story, it follows the unlikely friendship between Philippe (Francois Cluzet), a wealthy paraplegic, and his streetwise caretaker, Driss (a beaming, brooding Omar Sy, who won France’s Oscar equivalent for best actor for this role).
The film starts as Driss is waiting to be interviewed for the caretaker job along with several other candidates. But Driss is merely there to get a form signed so that he can collect welfare.
Tired of waiting, he barges in and confronts Phillippe and his assistant. Driss is brash, politically incorrect and arrogant. But this appeals to Phillippe, who tells Driss to come back the next day to get his form signed.
When he does, he’s informed he actually got the job. And a quick tour of his new quarters in Phillippe’s sprawling mansion wins him over. He’s just gotten out of jail and is running away from family problems, which is apparent after an abrupt confrontation with his mother at their tiny home the night before.
Driss slowly learns how to care for Phillippe, his large size and build proving beneficial for lifting Phillippe out of bed or into a car.
They slowly become good friends, despite Phillippe’s colleague warning him that “these street guys have no pity.”
“That’s what I want,” Phillippe replies. “No pity.”
That’s exactly what he gets from Driss, who cracks paraplegic jokes and hits on the female staff members. Before long, he’s giving advice to Phillippe’s teenage daughter and generally policing Phillippe’s life. He even livens Phillippe’s dull birthday party by dancing to Earth, Wind & Fire. Yeah, he’s a fun guy.
Eventually, things get complicated when Driss pushes Phillippe to meet a pen pal in person, and when Driss’ wayward, trouble-prone younger sibling shows up. Driss is forced to make a choice to return to his old life or stay where he is now comfortable.
Overall, the film is warm and inviting. There are many laugh-out-loud moments, mostly due to Driss’ unpolished manners. It’s a sort of fish-out-of-water story as buddy comedy. The film does touch on some social and race issues, but it doesn’t dwell on them. Its stereotypes are glossed over.
And yes, it does seem a little unrealistic — Driss is too likable. Would an impoverished, street-wise ex-con be this charming? Maybe not. But it makes for a great story (which is made all the more moving by showing the real Phillippe and Driss at the film’s end). It does teeter into sentimentality, but the performances earn it, particularly Sy’s.
The film has made more than $300 million outside the U.S. already, and it deserves its cult-hit status. “The Intouchables” is quite touching, indeed.