“Intouchables” Is a Good Story, But Not Good Enough to be Inspirational


Intouchables Poster

The premise of the French film “Intouchables” (2012), which is apparently based on a true story, is simply a new spin on a common story.  It tells a tale of a paraplegic billionaire named Philippe who hires a caretaker named Driss.  Driss has no prior experience working as a caregiver.  In fact, he has neither the expectation nor the intention of actually getting the job when he interviews for it.  The only reason why he interviewed was so that he can claim he tried to obtain employment in order to collect unemployment benefits.  Thus begins an unlikely partnership that develops into an even more unlikely friendship, as Driss helps Philippe become a better person.

There is a lot to like about the performance of Omar Sy as Driss.  His charisma radiates off the screen and he brings a lot of energy through his infectious laughs.  His gregariousness makes convincing the narrative that Driss not only attends to Philippe’s everyday needs but also helps Philippe at a more personal level.  It was easy to see how Driss makes Philippe a more cheerful person because I felt more upbeat whenever he appeared on screen.

The thing with Driss is that he isn’t necessarily a good person–he has just gotten out of jail when Philippe hired him–nor is he a hard worker–he refuses to perform certain tasks and his motives for interviewing in the first place is hardly commendable.  But this darker side of Driss’s character doesn’t feel forced or out of place with Driss’s amicable personality, a credit to Sy’s performance achieving a delicate balance.

It’s a good thing that Sy’s performance is so strong, because the other half of the duo, Philippe, is a complete waste.  The character is so shallowly developed that it is impossible to get emotionally invested in Philippe, whether good or bad.

The screenwriters, Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, as well as François Cluzet, who played Philippe, all share the blame for this.  Philippe is apparently difficult to work for, but there’s no illustration of how or why that’s the case other than by showing a couple scenes in which Philippe is cranky.  There is also a contrived scene in which Philippe’s attorney shows up and asks him why he has kept Driss as his caregiver, as if this rather important question in the developing relationship between the two men couldn’t be naturally conveyed through Sy’s and Cluzet’s performances.  Cluzet’s task of portraying a paraplegic wasn’t easy, but the biggest problem with his acting is not so much in playing a character with physical limitations, which itself was somewhat wanting, but in his inability to convincingly play Philippe as a character who experiences emotional growth.

What I don’t get about this film is why the filmmakers abandoned so many promising storylines that could have added so much more depth to the characters. Take, for example, the relationship of Driss and his famaily, namely his mother and his brother. The relationship with the mother is strained because Driss disappeared for six months because, we later learn through a fleeting reference, he was in jail. Exploring why Driss ended up in jail and making his relationship with Philippe bilateral so that Philippe also helps Driss overcome his darker side would have made the entire narrative of the film more compelling.

Then there’s Driss’s little brother, whom Driss is clearly intent on looking after.  The little brother keeps on getting into trouble with the wrong crowd, but the nature of the trouble is never explained and so his relationship with Driss is never developed.  Instead, the brother is simply treated as a plot driver, appearing on screen for the convenience to propel the movie forward.  This is maddeningly frustrating.  The brother is the reason Driss and Philippe goes through a separation that is inevitable in movies like this.  Once the separation brings the obligatory appreciation for the need for each other the brother’s trouble disappears, apparently after Driss has a conversation with a guy in a black car.  I understand that the brother’s narrative is only a side-story, but a little more of his story would have gone a long way in making Driss’s attraction more than his gregariousness.

I think “Intouchables” prove that feel-good movies are much harder to pull off than simply slapping a “Based on a true story” tagline on the posters.  Far too often, these movies end up either unmoving, like “The Blind Side” (2009), or worse, condescending and emotionally manipulative, like “North Country” (2005).   “Intouchables” isn’t manipulative and it’s not without its moving moments.  It did, after all, make me feel good after watching it.  But ultimately, I felt good only about the premise that set up the movie.  There is far too little development in the characters and the storyline for the movie to be better, to be inspirational.  That seems to be a serious shortcoming for a movie which had a premise that proved to be so promising.


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