Movie Review: Faux-Uplift and Forced Sentimentality Help Define THE INTOUCHABLES

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The opening five minutes of Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s The Intouchables suggests a far different movie that the 100 minutes that follow it.  To wit: we open on two men driving a luxury BMW through the streets of Paris.  It’s night, and the tone inside the car suggests the prelude to a heist in something like Rififi or Ronin; the driver (Omar Sy) is anxious, constantly checking the rearview mirror, and his passenger (the great François Cluzet, who’s looking even more like a perfect synthesis of Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman in his advancing years) couldn’t be more impassive, his hard demeanor suggesting an intimate familiarity with the phrase “time off for good behavior.”  When Sy guns the engine to escape the traffic surrounding him, he draws the attention of the cops, and then we’re in a high-speed chase, with Sy deftly maneuvering through Paris as Cluzet barely bats an eye.  Eventually, the cops box the BMW in, and just as they’ve cuffed and collared Sy do they realize that…

Cluzet is a paraplegic, and Sy – his caretaker – was driving him to the hospital.  At least, the first half of that sentence is true; while Cluzet’s character is disabled, he and Sy just wanted to beat the traffic, so Cluzet takes advantage of his condition and fakes a seizure in front of the cops, who agree to escort the two men to the hospital.

And it was at this point that I began to hate The Intouchables.  Not because the noir dramatics suddenly gave way to jokey comedy – I knew the actual plot going in, which takes inspiration from the real-life relationship between disabled millionaire Philippe Pozzo di Borgo (Cluzet) and his Senegalese caregiver Abdel “Driss” Sellou (Sy) – but because the setup’s reveal feels contrived in the worst ways.  Given the context surrounding this scene (I won’t spoil much, but the movie opens in medias res and then flashes back for most of its duration), what Philippe and Driss are heading to does in no way merit such a foolhardy attention grab.  If anything, it’s better for them if they keep a low profile, given the stakes of their mission.  I hate how glib they get when Philippe decides to fool the cops, or how they don’t really consider how they’ll escape the police escort once they reach the hospital, or how Nakache and Toledano have their leads sing along to Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “September” in celebration after fleecing Johnny Law – such a hackneyed, sitcom-y beat.

Furthermore, from a storytelling standpoint, it’s a contrived, manipulative beat.  Chances are, if you sought out The Intouchables, you knew what you were in for.  In France (where the movie is massively, inexplicably popular – I read somewhere that one in three French citizens has seen it.  That’s bigger than Titanic, folks), the general population was already familiar with the actual Pozzo di Borgo and Sellou story, and in America, the trailers played up Cluzet’s disability and the Odd Couple dynamic between him and Sy; you’d have to walk into the movie blind on television, or something, to lose yourself in the trick.

And I’m harping on this moment because, believe it or not, this opening scene is as good as The Intouchables gets – it’s all downhill from here.  Implausible and grating and clichéd as it might be, Nakache and Toledano shoot the fake-out crisply and with genuine energy.  The rest of the movie, however, is implausible and grating and clichéd and boring, to boot, a maudlin slice of feel-goodery that squanders its two leading men and a compelling premise in favor of a story that’s equal parts Driving Miss Daisy and Pretty Woman, twice warmed over.

You could use a metronome to tick off the film’s major plot points.  Driss is an irrepressible scamp who teaches Philippe how to let his hair down, and Philippe’s cold exterior masks a sensitive soul who teaches Driss the value of responsibility.  Their “meet-cute” is predicated off of Philippe finding Driss’ aggressive, insulting job interview refreshing, and if that weren’t bad enough, the scenes of Driss acclimating himself to his daily chores alternate between forced banter with Philippe and cloying wonder at the regal trappings of his caregiver quarters.

This is the kind of movie where the filmmakers either gloss over major emotional changes with unfunny comic interludes – Driss shaking up Philippe’s stuffy birthday party by playing “Boogie Wonderland,” or arranging to have a prostitute come in and rub Philippe’s ears, or the two men jetting off to the Alps to go hang-gliding – or express the lone serious moments in tired stereotypes.  Driss is trying to protect his young cousin from the dangerous influence of a street gang, Philippe is worried that his pen-pal relationship with a woman will sour once she sees he’s handicapped, and both subplots resolve themselves exactly (and as easily) as you might imagine.

Sy and Cluzet give the roles their all, but there’s only so much they can do; they’re stuck playing constructs, easy vessels designed to dispense life lessons and faux-uplift.  There is exactly one scene where The Intouchables threatens to hit a honest emotion, and it’s in the quiet scene where a stoned Philippe (if you’re playing our home game, then yes, Driss resorts to both soul music and marijuana in his pursuit to help Philippe get down) talks about his life before the paragliding accident that left him paralyzed, and Cluzet hints at a river of pain the movie is mostly willing to ignore.

There’s a good film here, one about how empathy can help anyone escape their limitations, be they physical, mental, or social, and I’d love to see Cluzet and Sy sink their teeth into a more substantive look at disability.  You want to see how it’s done?  Ben Lewin’s The Sessions immediately comes to mind, which was poignant and moving and irreverent and fearlessly unsentimental.  By comparison, The Intouchables is the Tom Shadyac version of the tale, and for those of you unfamiliar with that name, he’s the American director responsible for the cloyingly sentimental Patch Adams, Dragonfly, and Bruce/Evan Almighty.  Funnily enough, he’s also scheduled to direct the Americanized version of The Intouchables, though I have to wonder why.  Though his instincts fit the material, he’d be dumbing a down a picture that needs no help on its own.

At least Sony’s Blu-ray/UV Digital Copy combo pack looks great.  Mathieu Vadepied’s cinematography is sharp and defect-free, and the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track allows for a soundscape far more dynamic than the film’s modest subject matter might suggest.

Supplements-wise, we get five short, inessential deleted scenes.

I really wanted to like The Intouchables more than I did, but it is so wholly, relentlessly phony; I had a visceral reaction to its brand of sentimentality.

Hey, maybe you’ll fare better than me.  The Intouchables is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

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