Some blockbusters are planned, backed by expensive advertising campaigns and carefully orchestrated waves of buzz. Other efforts come out of nowhere to slay box office competition, riding a positive word-of-mouth high to pop culture glory. “The Intouchables” is as unassuming a picture as they come, yet its towering European success is nothing short of astonishing, with the feature smashing attendance records, generating a must-see magnetism usually reserved for movies about invading aliens, superheroes, and robots that turn into cars. And to think, all this hullabaloo over a simple tale about two men forming a friendship while engaged in a unique caretaker arrangement. Perhaps there’s still a filmgoing appetite for human stories after all.
Based on a true story, “The Intouchables” contains numerous scenes and turns of plot that would normally repel further interest in anything the movie is offering. At one point, Driss proves his youthful swagger by displaying his dance skills to the sounds of Earth, Wind & Fire, showing his stuffy employer, who’s a firm believer in orchestral splendor, the liberation of funk music. It’s a terrible scene, and there are a few more like it in this simplistic story of friendship, watching both sides warm up to each other while committed to a common cause of keeping Philippe alive.
What keeps “The Intouchables” afloat is a commitment to humanity, with writer/directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano taking special care with characterizations, peeling away superfluous sass to find two men making an impossible connection with a firm emotional foundation, sending them both down a path of increasing stability. The contrast between the rich, cultured Caucasian and his streetwise immigrant employee is a rough one, perhaps a little too obvious for complete comfort, but the screenwriting shows attention to personality, molding cliché into camaraderie that’s easy on the senses thanks to the two enthusiastic leading performances from Sy and Cluzet, who bring a surprising chemistry to the screen. The filmmakers tend to subplots of personal obstruction, especially Driss’s troubles at home, but the effort sticks largely on the two men as they strive to figure out a comfortable back and forth that satisfies their respective patience levels.
Stunningly, there are few drastic developments to bring “The Intouchables” to a boil, with the helmers aiming for more casual hardships, tracking Philippe’s attempt to woo a woman he’s never met in person, fearful of her rejection after years as a widower. Driss’s revelations about his family are also restrained, keeping the character plausibly distracted without hammering the picture with showy displays of self-destruction. By electing intimacy over artificiality, the movie allows viewers to develop a secure bond with the characters.
“The Intouchables” is incredibly approachable, and it’s easy to see why it’s enjoyed such a magnificent run in Europe. Hardened American audiences might break out in hives during a few contrived scenes, but the majority of the film keeps to an appealing pace and study of friendship, shedding histrionics to tell a tale of dependence explored by two men learning to live on their own.