As Americans, we seem to have some pretty fancy notions about the French. They have the best food, they have the prettiest dresses, and they have hoitiest of toity films. I suspect there’s a simple cultural disconnect at play there. If you take any movie and dub it in a foreign language, it just feels different. I’ve made the analogy before, but if you ever get the chance to watch Batman & Robin on Telemundo, you’ll find that the worst Batman movie ever made plays pretty well as a Luchador flick. That same principle holds true for Intouchables, a new French film that seems rather beautiful and touching until you realize that, in English, it would be an almost embarrassingly clichéd heartwarmer, the kind that a director like Chris Columbus would get decades of crap for making. You know, like Stepmom.
Directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano have produced a film so specifically designed to tug the heartstrings that you almost want to keep your pulmonary artery as far away as possible just to test its limits. François Cluzet, the star of the well-liked thriller Tell No One, plays a quadriplegic named Philippe, who is having trouble finding a new caretaker. Omar Sy, from Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s exceptional MicMacs, plays Driss, a street-smart individual who only applies for the job so he can get turned down and earn his unemployment benefits. But ironically (if you can call it that), Philippe hires Driss anyway, because he’s the only candidate who doesn’t pity him.
I don’t have much experience with physical therapists, but you’d think there would be a few of them out there who actually respect their patients. Well, apparently not, and that’s what makes Driss so special. It’s not quite fair to call Driss a “Magic Negro,” since Philippe’s influence improves Driss’s life as well, but he’s surely a fantastic one, livening up boring parties by dancing to Earth, Wind and Fire, and openly mocking the theatricality of the opera, which is hardly a new sentiment but Intouchables tries to get away with it anyway. Driss gets Philippe to open up and pursue his love life again, while Philippe gives Driss the sense of purpose that comes from having a worthwhile occupation.
Moreover, Philippe also gives Driss a lifestyle he has never known, since Philippe is a millionaire, and prone to fast cars and extravagant modern art purchases. Intouchables would have been a very, very different movie if Philippe wasn’t as rich as Scrooge McDuck and feel good scenes like parasailing across the Alps weren’t even a possibility. It’s much easier to maintain a film’s good-natured tone across the full 112 minutes when real-life issues like health care costs and unrealized personal fantasies aren’t something you need to worry yourself about. True, Intouchables is based on a true story, but the fact that the filmmakers gravitated towards this kind of saccharine real-life tale does little to forgive the film’s undeniably conventional construction and too-easy plot points.
But enough of my own Scrooging. Intouchables is not what you’d call a “bad film,” but its attempts to elicit tears from its audience are simply, by now, distractingly familiar. To the film’s credit, it plays these clichés well, and sympathetic, even wonderful performances from Cluzet and Sy make Intouchables an enjoyable experience even if you have to remind yourself that an American version starring Jack Nicholson and Mos Def would be insufferable as hell. It’s okay to like Intouchables, but it never comes across as truly special, which unfortunately seems like what they were going for. It’s the same old tearjerker we’ve seen a million times already. This time it just happens to be French.