Untouchables (Intouchables): Film Review

Untouchables (Intouchables) film still - H
Two strong central performances elevate a shamelessly manipulative French crowd pleaser.

François Cluzet and Omar Sy star in a French comedy-drama about a quadriplegic white millionaire and his outspoken caretaker from the Paris ghetto.

SAN SEBASTIAN -- The King's Speech meets Driving Miss Daisy in Untouchables (Intouchables), a loosely based-on-fact French tale of a quadriplegic white millionaire given a new lease of life by his uncouth black caretaker. Corny, calculating and commercial, this genial buddy movie had its international and remake rights snapped up the Weinstein Company two months before it world premiered out of competition as the closing film of the San Sebastian Film Fesetival.

While by no means the most distinguished or subtle French production of the year, this fourth feature by writer-directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano will almost certainly provide the duo with their first taste of international recognition. Built firmly around the appeal of its two charismatic leads, Untouchables could live up to its title at the French box offices when it opens November 2.

The most obvious draw here is François Cluzet, best known for his highly energetic turn as a harassed pediatrician plunged into Hitchcockian mystery in Guillame Canet's smash Tell No One. (He received a Best Actor César for that movie, having racked up no less than nine nominations for France's Oscar equivalent.) His performance here is physically demanding for very different reasons: His character Philippe is paralyzed from the neck down as a result of a paragliding accident.

An extremely wealthy widower, fiftyish Philippe lives with his teenage daughter Elisa (Alba Gaïa Kraghede Bellugi) in an opulently luxurious Paris apartment. Hiring a new caretaker to assist him with his daily physical needs, he rejects various highly qualified candidates in favor of Driss (Omar Sy), who has only applied for the job to ensure he keeps getting welfare payments.

A recently released ex-con, the thirtyish Driss's brash confidence and sometimes brutal straightforwardness impress the jaded Philippe, who has become tired of the "pitying" attentions of his previous helpers. Driss faces a steep learning curve in his transition from the projects to Philippe's palatial pad, but this new arrangement quickly starts paying some unexpected dividends for both parties.

Borrowing liberally from the likes of The Scent of a Woman, My Fair Lady, Trading Places, The Prince and the Pauper, The Sea Inside and even TV's Diff'rent Strokes — to name but a few — Nakache and Toledo don't exactly seek to reinvent the wheel here. Their slickly executed culture-clash character piece is stuffed chock full of hard-knock life lessons that owe much more to the conventions of the screen than the tough realities of social deprivation and of the severely handicapped.

Script-wise they could easily have taken the material down much more sentimental or melodramatic avenues. So while the lack of third-act fireworks may leave some viewers feeling short-changed, a little restraint goes a long way. Indeed, even the hardest-hearted may be moved by the finale, which includes brief footage of Philippe and Driss's real-life counterparts. Ludovico Einaudi's score adds to the poignancy without becoming intrusively hectoring.

Driss's characterization veers perilously close to caricature at certain junctures, most notably when he displays his energetic dance-moves to liven up Philippe's stuffy birthday party. (The real Driss, we eventually discover, is Arab rather than black.) The racial angle is often clumsily dramatized, as when Elisa makes an implausibly stupid remark about how things are done "in your country." The chap may have been born in Senegal, but is unmistakeably a home-grown son of the banlieues.

The casting of Sy -- a livewire presence who previously appeared in two previously Nakache/Toledano productions, Those Happy Days (2006) and Tellement proches (2009) -- helps to alleviate much concerns as he strikes the right notes of menace, charm and chutzpah in a breakout performance.

Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival
Production companies: Quad, Gaumont, TFI Films, Ten Films, Chadcorp
Cast: François Cluzet, Omar Sy, Anne Le Ny, Audrey Fleurot, Clotilde Mollet
Directors/screenwriters: Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano
Producers: Nicolas Duval Adassovsky, Yann Zenou, Laurent Zeitoun
Director of photography: Mathieu Vaudepied
Production designer: François Emmanuelli
Music: Ludovico Einaudi
Costume designer: Isabelle Pannetier
Editors: Dorian Rigal Ansous
Sales: Gaumont
No rating, 92 minutes