The Intouchables: A worn-out story made fresh

Intouchables-small

 

I hope you’re all getting similarly weary of this cycle I’ve trapped myself in. Don’t act like you don’t know what I mean. One week I indulge myself in a personal passion like giant, radioactive doom lizards or musclebound man-children in capes, then next week I diligently review some artsy foreign film in a desperate attempt to convince my readers and editors that “No, no, I’m totally worldly and cultured and not only really in my element with movies that have a special portion of the budget put aside for fake entrails!”

But we both know the facade is becoming as thin and flimsy as used tissue paper. What gets me is you still have me keeping up this ruse. My once clever dance of deception is now a strained, deranged monkey dance, done for the amusement of a cackling crowd. “Dance, monkey, dance!” you cry, as the tears roll down my face and my will to live slowly withers like a dead snake in a toaster oven.

Where was I going with this?

Oh right, The Intouchables, a new french movie that’s getting rave reviews in the international scene.  Culture!

 Right from the get go, this movie had me raising a single cynical eyebrow in its’ general direction, and really just look at the basic premise and tell me you haven’t heard this one before: A rich, stuffy white guy and a streetwise black fellow form an unlikely friendship and learn important life lessons from each other. The white guy learns to chill out and enjoy life and the black guy gains drive and ambition.

I’ve seen that movie, we’ve all seen that movie, it’s the same white-guilt fueled kind of premise that’s been attached to cinema like a formulaic remora for decades now.

And I was so primed to unleash some white-hot, righteous rage on this thing. I was sharpening my hatchet and picturing myself standing over the movie’s maimed corpse, laughing uproariously as the blood of yet more saccharine, uninspired drivel ran down the streets, spilled by my hand.

But then I made the dreadful mistake of watching it and the cackling witch of my hate dissolved under a bucket of water, because I begrudgingly have to admit that the movie is pretty damn good.

The basic premise really is what I said before, but the one detail I omitted is that the stuffy, rich white guy Philippe is also quadriplegic, played excellently by actor Francois Cluzet. Now before you go on about “how hard is it to play a paralyzed guy, just sit there and don’t move!”, bear in mind that acting is more than just reciting lines, it’s a primarily physical craft. Cluzet basically had to forget everything he knew about body language and bring out 100% of his performance through facial expression, and that’s really hard! It’s like trying to paint a masterpiece with just a toothbrush and a bit of crusty mayonnaise. Your tools are limited.

The relationship between him and his new aide Driss (played very well by relative newcomer Omar Sy) is really what makes this movie work beyond the tired-as-all-hell premise. They both feel like well-developed characters and their relationship is interesting to watch play out.

As much as I froth at the idea of formula, it is very much worth noting that formula is not always necessarily a bad thing, taking an old formula and adding a new coat of paint is what gave us some great movies. Indiana Jones was basically a retread of a formula that had been in place before cinema had even been invented, and yet I still get tingly in my pants-region when Raiders comes on.

And yet, there are still moments in Intouchables that give me pause. The inevitable scenes where Driss comically performs social faux-pas after social faux-pas and hits Philippe’s secretary with such alarming awkwardness you’d think he learned how to get chicks from a how-to guide badly translated from a foreign language. Philippe seems to occasionally dip his feet into the stereotype pool, sending over-wrought poetry to a distant woman.

And of course there are some third act problems, namely that the big conflict meant to escalate the tension and provide a proper climax is that after a seemingly innocuous incident with Driss’ brother, Philippe feels Driss should move on. But then after a montage of them both being miserable, Driss comes back. That’s really the conflict. He leaves for a while, and then comes back.

I suppose given how the central piece of the movie is the relationship between these two men that could make for a decent conflict to wrap things up but it seems almost halfhearted.

But in spite of all my curmudgeonly leanings and all the desperate attempts my cynical side made to impose itself, Intouchables did manage the feat of touching something in me, making me smile and even laugh once or twice. Yes, it may follow a story formula that’s been done to death, brought back to life with black magic and done some more, but it goes to show that with the right amount of polish and commitment you can take something we’ve seen a million times and make it seem new.

With the possible exception of Men in Black, apparently.

Still on the fence? Check out the trailer. For Intouchables, I mean. You should know better than to see the new Men in Black by now.

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