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‘The Intouchables’ Review: Feel-Good French Import Condescends

"The Intouchables," a would-be inspirational tale of a friendship that crosses racial lines, leaves a peculiar aftertaste

Not since Julia Roberts has a movie star had a smile so wide and so ingratiating as Omar Sy, the likable lead of “The Intouchables.” When this French actor smiles, between his white teeth glistening and the edges of his eyes crinkling, his face lights up with the bright wattage of the Las Vegas strip.

Sy is one of the costars of “The Intouchables,” a French comic drama that has been a huge commercial hit in its native country. Sy won a César award (the Gallic Oscar equivalent) for his performance and the film was nominated in eight additional categories.

That he is a magnetic performer holds true no matter how one feels about the movie itself. This well-meaning, feel good, would-be inspirational tale of a friendship that crosses racial lines is bound to receive a more mixed reception Stateside than it did in France.

Also read: Paul McCartney Film to Screen Before 'The Intouchables'

Based on a true story, “Intouchables” chronicles the unlikely bromance that develops between two very different men.  Phillipe (Françoise Cluzet) is a wealthy white Frenchman who is a quadriplegic after a hang-gliding accident. A widower, he lives in a luxurious mansion in Paris with his sullen teenage daughter and a staff of assistants.

Driss (Sy), of Senegalese descent, is an unskilled young man newly out of jail who resides in a tiny apartment on the edges of Paris with his immigrant mother and numerous siblings. As a condition of his parole, Driss must look for a job and perfunctorily applies for a post as a caretaker to Phillipe.

Though completely unqualified, he ends up getting hired and moves into Phillipe’s house. The two men gradually become close friends, each managing to help and teach the other in unexpected ways.

One is of two minds about “Intouchables.” Yes, it’s uplifting and offers plenty of amusing, if somewhat condescending scenes, as Driss has his first encounters with high art when he accompanies Phillipe to the opera and fancy art galleries.

But the film seems like a French version of what Spike Lee has dubbed the “magical Negro” school of movies, in which a black person suddenly shows up out to aid and save a troubled or injured white person.

It becomes even odder when, at the very end of the movie, we are shown the real-life Driss and Phillipe and it turns out that the actual model for Driss is an Arab of Moroccan descent. Why the ethnic change?

“Intouchables” is like a drink that, while it goes down easy, ends up leaving a peculiar, bordering on bad, taste in the mouth.