One sentence synopsis: A Senegalese ex-con from the slums of Paris becomes the personal aide to a wealthy paralytic.
Things Havoc liked: Having been seriously disappointed by most of the summer's offerings so far (with the exception of course of Avengers), I decided this week to try something new. The Intouchables is a French film generating a huge amount of buzz overseas, and none whatsoever here in the States. I suppose that's par for the course, but on the strength of excellent recommendations, I decided to give it a shot.
Given the subject matter of this film, dealing as it does with poverty, racism, disability, loss, frustration, and the class divisions of French society, I was not prepared for how drop-dead funny this movie is. Wall to wall, the movie is a riotous send-up to everything from the pretensions of Haute-culture to classical music to thug life. Much of the reason for this is Omar Sy, a French actor whom I've never heard of before. Playing Driss, the felon-turned personal aide, Sy never puts a single foot wrong in the entire film. His character is boisterous and almost manic, shamelessly hitting on everything in sight, constantly bursting into laughter and offering hilarious commentary on the absurd lunacies of the high-class world he is thrown into, all without ever once appearing like a caricature of "poor" people, or an annoying ass. In lesser hands, this character could be downright insufferable, if not offensive, but Sy is a revelation, and effectively sells the entire movie with his performance.
Not that he's the only one of course. Veteran French actor François Cluzet plays Phillipe, a wealthy quadriplegic frustrated with his aides and with the febrile pity of his friends and family. Playing a character unable to move anything but his head (which cannot be easy), Cluzet gets across the bitter frustration of not merely his disability but the other losses he has suffered in his live, all without ever overselling the matter. His comment partway through the movie that he wishes Driss to take care of him precisely because he is 'pitiless' speaks more volumes than any tearful rage-against-the-heavens sequence that a lesser film might give him. He is not portrayed as a stuffy aristocrat (though of course he has his foibles), nor is his role in the film to receive the wise education of a "magic negro" (as Spike Lee famously described The Legend of Bagger Vance). He laughs at Sy's hilarious ridicule of an absurd Wagnerian opera, but still insists on sitting through it, despite Sy's protestations. The two play off one another famously, and the chemistry between the actors is such that the movie is a joy from start to finish.
The rest of the film doesn't disappoint either. The movie is written tremendously well, with a speed and wit that one seems to find only in French films (I jest). The jokes come fast and thick, often montage-style, and when the film isn't being funny, both the dialogue and the plot are believable and human, eschewing the forced-conflict that the movie looks early on like it might be about to set up in favor of reasonable behavior on the part of real people. That the film is based on a true story honestly comes as no surprise.
Things Havoc disliked: A couple of plot elements, particularly the pen-pal subplot, were reasonably predictable, and though the scenes are funny (particularly when Driss insists on calling Phillipe's girlfriend), they do start to edge towards the "hip black man teaches the square white man how to live" territory. It wouldn't be noticeable at all if not for the incredible dexterity with which the film side-steps the barest hint of such notions overall. There are also a couple of subplots that do not receive proper resolution, such as Driss' younger brother. Finally, while I did like the ending quite a bit, I wish it had gone a bit more into what the dynamic between the characters ultimately evolved into.
Final thoughts: Frankly, if I can only think of one paragraph worth of negatives to cite, and have to resort to "I wish it had been longer", then I don't think the filmmakers need to worry too much. The Intouchables was an astoundingly good movie, one of the best I've seen since I started this little project, and all the better for the complete surprise it was (at least to me). It may not be the most groundbreaking film ever made, and the reviewers who call it "Driving Miss Daisy Light" do have something of a point (though the ones screaming racism are simply out of their goddamn minds, I'm looking at you Variety!), but this is one of the most solidly entertaining movies I've ever seen, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Final Score: 9/10