On paper, "The Intouchables" looks like eat-your-vegetables cinema: the story of a wealthy, white disabled man and the troubled black youth from the projects who becomes his reluctant caretaker. Surely, life lessons will be learned by all and an unlikely friendship will form across racial and socioeconomic lines and we'll all feel good about ourselves walking out of the theater afterward.
It could have been painfully mawkish, but writers and directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano upend expectations by infusing the comedy with a subversive, playful tone throughout, with some totally inappropriate humor and even some surprises. (There's a Hitler joke, just to give you an idea of where they're willing to go for a laugh.) It's sweet but not saccharine, and the result is irresistibly crowd-pleasing.
The film is already a huge hit in its native France and beyond, having made nearly $340 million worldwide and earning Omar Sy the Cesar Award for best actor over the Oscar-winning star of "The Artist," Jean Dujardin. While you're watching it, you can just imagine how easy an English-language remake would be, you could cast it in your head -- and indeed, the property already has been optioned for that very purpose. Until then, though, we can be charmed by the original.
The hugely charismatic Sy stars as Driss, a Senegalese ex-con who spends his days hanging out with his pals on the streets of Paris and not really trying to find work. He only answers an ad seeking help for the rich quadriplegic Philippe (Francois Cluzet) because he wants to make it appear as if he's job hunting in order to keep receiving welfare. But there's something about this guy that Philippe likes; he has no pity, he'll treat him like a man. Driss is hired, despite being totally unqualified.
And so begins the journey in which each helps the other become a better person. Yes, there's some obvious culture-clash stuff to be had here. Driss, who'd been sharing a crowded apartment with relatives of all ages, moves into Philippe's mansion and is wowed by the size of his opulent, private bathroom; Philippe, a sophisticated snob who became paralyzed in a paragliding accident, finds he actually likes Earth, Wind & Fire. Before Driss gets the gig, there's also the obligatory montage of wacky job candidates, all eager to say the right things during their interview, but even that works and it provides the set-up for the unflinching honesty that will become Driss' trademark.
While it all sounds too impossibly inspirational to be true, "The Intouchables" happens to have been inspired by a true story. Yes, the "Magical Negro" element of Sy's character may sound like a cliche and it might make some audience members uncomfortable, but his character is complex and flawed enough to transcend type. He and Cluzet are delightful together, each bringing a different kind of energy while bringing out the best in the other. Sy is all impulse and wisecracks, he's constantly in motion; Cluzet has the daunting task of trying to strike a powerful contrast while acting only from the neck up, and he pulls it off with stoic, bemused grace.
Philippe is drawn to the fact that Driss doesn't condescend to him; at the same time, "The Intouchables" condescends to neither character, and that straightforwardness and purity of emotion should cut through to even the most cynical viewer.
"The Intouchables," a Weinstein Co. Release, is rated R for language and some drug use. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 112 minutes. Three stars out of four.