(2011)4Jason BuchananFeel-good movies tend to be written off as fluff by cynical film critics, but that's not to say that just because a picture is uplifting means that it's devoid of substance. The second-highest-grossing film in French history, Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano's The Intouchables examines the unlikely friendship that forms between an affluent paraplegic and his gruff caretaker, a convicted criminal with few prospects and a grim future. Occasionally sentimental yet far from maudlin, it succeeds because both of the characters are fully realized and the lead actors share a playful rapport that convincingly transcends class and culture.
Inspired by a true story, The Intouchables opens to find Driss (Omar Sy) returning to his family's cramped apartment following a mysterious six-month absence. Kicked out onto the streets by his overburdened mother, the resilient young man applies for a job helping paralyzed aristocrat Philippe (François Cluzet). Convinced that he would never actually qualify for the job, he does it not out of ambition, but instead a desire to get the signature needed to secure his government benefits. But when a casual conversation between the two men leads to a playful exchange about music, Philippe tricks Driss into returning the following morning and hires him on the spot. While they have precious little in common on the surface, the more time Philippe and Driss spend together, the stronger their bond grows. For Philippe, it means finding the courage to let go of his late wife and build up the confidence to start dating again; for Driss, it means doing right by his mother and preventing his younger brother from straying down the wrong path.
While The Intouchables doesn't exactly reveal anything new in detailing the odd-couple friendship that forms between Philippe and Driss, it does offer one thing that many films of its ilk do not: a sense of authenticity. Of course, this might be because this story really happened (in a coda we see footage of the real Philippe and Driss soaking in some breathtaking scenery together), but nevertheless, there exists a certain ethereal bridge between Nakache and Toledano's easygoing screenplay and the naturalistic performances of the two leads that prevents the film from feeling overly trite or emotionally manipulative. Sometimes in life the most meaningful relationships can blossom under the most unlikely circumstances, and if we're lucky like Philippe and Driss, we'll be open to the experience. At a time when some of the finest working filmmakers seem to be stuck in the dark (see Christopher Nolan's brooding Batman franchise or David Fincher's jet-black The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), it's refreshing to see a movie that doesn't equate lightness with mindlessness, and one that also confronts some of life's harsh realities with a sense of levity and hopefulness instead of clichéd millennial fatalism.
As a result, it's easy to see why French filmgoers flocked to The Intouchables; few movies manage to show how the radiance of the human spirit can dispel the shadows of the human condition with such knowing nuance, and while it may feel a bit conventional, perhaps that familiarity offers a certain kind of celluloid nourishment that cynicism simply cannot.