Driss is handsome, young, black and brash. He’s the sort of bully who stomps into a room and impatiently storms to the front of the line because he doesn’t have the patience to wait his turn, and he has the build and bravado to back up his behavior. He lives in a housing project with his long-suffering mom, is a little too fond of his marijuana and is fine with the idea of living off the state’s handouts.
Which is why he’s gone through the motions of applying for a job working for Philippe. He has no idea what the job will entail, but Driss doesn’t sweat details or see the necessity for good manners. Philippe (Francois Cluzet) may be rich. But he’s nobody to Driss (Omar Sy). And he’s a quadriplegic.
The Intouchables is an amusing, touching and intensely likable French comedy about these mismatched men — the pitiless punk and the immobile, lonely older man who has no need for sympathy. He knows how bad his condition is.
“These street guys have no pity,” he is warned. “That’s what I want,” he answers.
Driss is to be his assistant, his guardian angel. He listens in case his high-maintenance employer calls out in the night, helps bathe him and wash his hair. He makes mistakes — accidentally burning Philippe, who can’t feel a thing. And turns up his nose and gripes every step of the way.
They bicker about the silliest things. Music — Francois loves Berlioz; Driss insists “That’s the name of my housing project.” Driss is into American funk of the ’70s (Earth, Wind and Fire, etc.), which is a mystery to Philippe. As they get to know each other we start to see layers to both men — Philippe’s penchant for dictating florid romantic letters to pen pals he fears meeting in person, Driss’s troubled history and the younger brother who may follow in his footsteps. Each man, in his way, is an outcast — untouchable. And each finds a way to touch the other’s life.
Filmmakers Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano tell this story in a flashback. They set a semi-serious tone and send that up at every turn. Yes, this is a serious connection, a relationship that will eventually benefit both men. But it’s also cute — Driss badgering, betting and bullying the helpless Philippe into making more of the limited life he leads; Philippe reveling in the younger, healthier man’s ignorance and appetites.
At times, the cute elements of this true story (stay through the credits) threaten to overwhelm it. Driss is unimpressed with his boss’ art collection and takes up painting, cracks up at his first trip to the opera and misses or ignores every social signal sent his way. But he also menaces the neighbor who blocks Philippe’s driveway and pushes his boss —literally — into a better life.
The Intouchables is that rare French import that aims no higher than adorable and hits its target every time.
Cast: Omar Sy, Francois Cluzet, Anne Le Ny.
Writer/directors: Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano.
Producers: Nicolas Duval-Adassovsky, Laurent Zeitoun, Yann Zenou.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 112 minutes. Adult situations, language, themes. In French with English subtitles. Opens Friday June 1 in Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Palm Beach: Shadowood.