Without adjusting for inflation, the second-highest-grossing movie in American history is Joss Whedon's superhero smorgasbord The Avengers. In contrast, the second-highest-grossing movie in French history is Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano's caregiver picnic The Intouchables. Neither movie is as impressive as its box-office take, but in contrast to The Avengers' hollow, market-driven bombast, The Intouchables is pleasant and warm-hearted, if a little disingenuous.
Omar Sy plays Driss, a Senegalese man living in a crowded Parisian housing project whose irreverent antics secure him a temporary job as a personal care assistant for Philippe (François Cluzet), a wealthy quadriplegic who's lost the use of his limbs after a paragliding accident. Although Driss is grossed out by the less appealing sanitary requirements of his new gig at first ("I don't empty anyone's ass on principle," he declares), he quickly grows comfortable at his new quarters in Philippe's house. When he's not wheeling Philippe around, he paints, listens to music in his own private bathtub, and tries to seduce Magalie (Audrey Fleurot), a red-haired bombshell who dresses like the Black Widow's cooler, older sister.
As Philippe points out, his new caregiver's lack of pity for his condition is one of the main reasons they get along so well. Thanks to Philippe's sense of irony and Driss' guileless exuberance, their scenes together are simultaneously light and tough. Instead of arranging meaningful encounters that may harbor life lessons about tolerance and privilege, Nakache and Toledano discover fresh moments of male bonding, as they do in a brief scene when the two men share a joint while a hooker massages Philippe's ears — one of his few remaining erogenous zones.
Unfortunately, the movie's most crowd-pleasing moments are also its most questionable ones. Driss' suspicion of modern art and classical culture is always indulged and validated, most notably when he livens up the end of Philippe's birthday party by busting on classical music before introducing the violinists and caterers to Earth, Wind and Fire's "Boogie Wonderland." Yes, it's amusing (and fair) to point out that many people associate classical music with cartoons and commercial jingles. On the other hand, these scenes largely serve to reinforce an audience's own upper-class suspicion and resentment. It's interesting to note that when Philippe sells one of Driss' paintings for an obscene mark-up, Driss' frustrations with the subjectivity of modern art vanish, because now he gets to play Jean-Michel Basquiat for a while.
To sum up: The Intouchables is far from a bad time at the movies, but don't trust it with your valuables.
Opening Friday, July 13th