Review: French mega-hit ‘The Intouchables’ lands in the U.S.

What if an intimate uplifting dramedy based on the real life bond between a rich quadriplegic and an ex-con on welfare became such a phenomenon that it out-grossed “Avatar”?

That’s what happened when “The Intouchables” was released in its home country of France last year. It was simply untouchable at the box office and went on to claim the Best Actor César Award (a.k.a. the French Oscar) for breakout star Omar Sy. He beat out Jean Dujardin right before Dujardin claimed the actual Oscar for “The Artist.”

Will any of this matter at all to U.S. audiences? Perhaps just enough to give “The Intouchables” a fighting chance at arthouses, but rest assured the “Avatar” record is safe here.

“The Intouchables” is an eminently modest movie. It may open with a car chase before flashing back to the bulk of its story, but the action is generally limited to unlikely male bonding. Friendship, you see, is capable of crossing boundaries of race, class, culture and even physical handicaps. Isn’t that amazing?

Filmmakers Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano practically beg you to check your cynicism at the door, it simply won’t serve any purpose while watching a movie where a man’s joyful dances to Earth, Wind and Fire and Kool and the Gang hits qualify as standout moments.

That man is Driss (the aforementioned Sy), who collects welfare while living in an overcrowded housing project with his extended family until a fed up relative kicks him out. With nowhere to go, Driss receives a fortuitous job offer from wealthy Philippe (François Cluzet of “Tell No One”) who lost the use of his limbs after a paragliding accident. Philippe needs a new live-in care-giver, and as much as Driss isn’t crazy about the idea of playing nurse he also can’t resist the luxurious lifestyle Philippe offers.

And so begins a tried-and-true opposites attract bromance. Philippe loves classical music, Driss digs soul. Philippe has given up on love, Driss charms the ladies. Philippe can barely move, Driss dances up a storm whenever he has the chance. They don’t understand each other at the start, but darn it if they won’t change each others’ lives forever.

Pardon me, there I go getting cynical again. It’s just a little difficult to surrender to the mild charms of “The Intouchables” if you’ve ever seen a single one of the dozens of movies just like it. How did such a safe, familiar tale become such a super-sized smash in France? You’ll have to ask the French.

The actors help. When an entire movie revolves around a unique bond between two characters it’s a relief if the performers can make that connection feel credible. Sy and Cluzet do just that, while also ensuring their characters are specific enough to be interesting on their own. It’s a study in contrasts — Sy’s unbridled energy and Cluzet’s immobile civility — that wins no points for subtlety or nuance but keeps the film’s engine humming right along.

Are we supposed to make anything of the racial and class differences between the two men? Again, cultural differences get in the way, but apparently not really. It’s only at the end of the film that we discover via a real life photo that the man Driss is based on is Algerian and not Senegalese like Sy. But the filmmakers wanted Sy, so that was that. The film isn’t a treatise on French sociology, and there’s little reason to believe Nakache and Toledano have much on their minds beyond soothing messages of optimism and friendship. Unlike, say, the far richer and much more complicated American indie “The Visitor,” “The Intouchables” doesn’t attempt to give its audience anything deeper to ponder than a paragliding sequence set to Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.”

All of this could be quite appealing to moviegoers of a certain age, and “The Intouchables'” real rival at the U.S. box office will be “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” — another pleasantly inconsequential import that found success overseas and is currently drawing “mature” audiences curious to see something other than Hollywood’s summer behemoths.

“Intouchables” is a marginally better film, but it’s in a foreign language and lacks the more U.S.-friendly stars of “Marigold Hotel.” If it slips through the cracks, it won’t be a big loss. Anyway, for all its proven box office prowess, there’s something about this film that seems more suited to underdog status.

“The Intouchables” opens in limited release May 25

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