MTV has done more wrong than right in the past decade, but by and large, “Rob & Big” was a feverish hit from 2006-2008 — the impetuous day-to-day of a gremlin-like, rich guy and his charismatic, sizeable counterpart/bodyguard. French directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano orchestrate something similar in “The Intouchables.” Make no mistake, the film has heart and humor. But in the end, it is still reminiscent of a reality TV show that airs on a monolithically pathetic music channel. And that’s never a good sign. Ever.
At the Michigan
The Weinstein Company
Set in wonderful Paris — which we never fully appreciate because the lens ignores the gorgeous sights — quadriplegic nobleman Philippe (played with gentleness by François Cluzet, “Little White Lies”) unexpectedly hires the most unlikely of candidates to care for him, shampoo him, wash him, dress him and empty out his portable shitbag.
Things start off rocky. Driss ((played with charming honesty by newcomer Omar Sy) is loud, horny, unappreciative, obnoxious and yet enviably assertive. Philippe reaffirms this when he tells his business associate, “That’s why I like him. He has no pity.” Philippe turns out to be more work than Driss anticipated — 4 a.m. wakeup calls, sporadic hyperventilating and the nonstop pushing of his sorta-electric wheelchair comprise a day in the life. But the pair grows closer and sprouts a symbiotic bond. Driss eats up Philippe’s wisdom and worldliness while Philippe absorbs Driss’s looser, recreational outlook on life.
“The Intouchables” indeed has a backbone: Sy. His very presence slaps a smile on anyone’s face and his effortless ability to elicit an emotional response is a testament to his first-rate acting. As a consequence, the limelight is stolen from ailing Philippe, who seems comparatively uninteresting and vapid. Philippe’s avidity for poetry, modern literature and abstract art seems more like a contrived façade than a genuine passion. In other words, viewers find Driss cool and Philippe laughably uncool.
Each character’s background story is nothing earth-shattering. Driss has 893,712,893,127 siblings and an always-pissed-off, paycheck-to-paycheck mother. He supposedly was a thug, but all we see is Driss lighting up a few joints with some stoner friends. On the other hand, Philippe crashed in a paragliding accident and is currently engaging in some supposedly ardent pen-pal exchange with a woman he found online. He handwrites her letters and receives them back like some deranged Anglophile. The creepy exchange has been going on for over a year without a phone call or a face-to-face encounter.
Is this a movie or a bad, virginal soap opera?
Fact: “The Intouchables” does plenty right. A contrasting soundtrack of Earth, Wind & Fire and classical Bach freshly complements each character’s ideals and principles. There’s an exciting introductory scene in which Driss weaves Philippe’s Maserati through traffic while busting EW&F’s “September” and betting on whether the cops will ever catch up. Though often times immature, Driss also injects the film with some essential humor. In an early scene, he asserts, “I’m not emptying the ass of a man I don’t know,” referring to Philippe’s adult diaper. I guess it’s not so bad.
“The Intouchables” touches — but only tangentially. It smiles a lot. It smiles so often it seems fake. After all, how fulfilling can pushing a boring man around in a sorta-electric chair be? Ask Rob and Big — I’m sure they’ve tried it.