The premise of the French film "The Intouchables" is like a mash-up of "The King's Speech" and "Driving Miss Daisy," with a dose of "Trading Places" for good measure. Philippe (François Cluzet), a white millionaire quadriplegic widower, hires the black ex-con Driss (Omar Sy), who only showed up for the job interview to extend his unemployment benefits, to be his new caretaker.
To nobody's surprise in the audience, Driss and Philippe, after some rocky beginnings, hit it off. Philippe wants a lively companion who won't coddle him or shoot him pathetic looks. He knows he's taking a chance on Driss, a Senegalese native with a history of petty crime, but welcomes the risk.
Driss initially chafes at the down-and-dirty requirements of the job, but inevitably he becomes not just a caregiver but a friend. The two men go out partying; they go to the opera; they even go paragliding (Philippe was paralyzed in a paragliding accident).
It would be easy to take offense at this scenario – just as some people were offended by the supposed Uncle Tom-ism inherent in "Driving Miss Daisy." Movies in which black characters, however nuanced or well meaning, act in subservience to whites, often raise hackles. For me, it all depends on how it's done. "Driving Miss Daisy," for example, may have offered up a stereotypical situation, but Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy were anything but stereotypes.
The situation in "The Intouchables" is more complicated because Driss, although he is presented as a life force, is a fairly one-dimensional life force. He's in the movie to give Philippe a second chance at joy. To do this, the writer-directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano have Driss acting streetwise all the time, even when he and Philippe are attending the opera. Causing a commotion, Driss laughs at the outsize costumes and gross theatricality, and Philippe, to his amazement, joins in.
The scene is supposed to be about bonding, but what comes across instead is the implicit assumption that nobody from Driss's background could possibly "get" high culture.
In another scene, Driss livens up Philippe's stodgy birthday party by busting out some moves on the dance floor. Both Cluzet and Sy are adept enough to smooth over the racial uncomfortableness of these scenes, but the polishing extends to every other aspect of the film as well. Why doesn't Philippe ever explode at Driss? Why is Driss such an angel? The lovefest between these two is preordained because the filmmakers have included nothing that would get in the way.
It's worth noting that this movie is loosely based on actual people – except the real-life Driss character is, in fact, an Arab. If Driss had been an Arab, "The Intouchables" would have waded into less navigable waters, but it might have made for a tougher movie.
If this film sounds like fodder for a Hollywood redo, you're correct. The Weinstein Company, which is releasing it, has also bought up the remake rights. Grade: B- (Rated R for language and some drug use.)