Loosely based on a true story, France’s The Intouchables—so titled, presumably, because a proper translation would have viewers expecting Eliot Ness—is the second-highest-grossing movie of all time in its home country. Thinking about why that might be proves far more interesting than the film itself. On its surface, it’s a simple mismatched-buddies tale: Philippe (François Cluzet), an obscenely rich quadriplegic, impulsively decides to bypass various qualified but namby-pamby candidates for live-in caregiver and instead hire the openly belligerent Driss (Omar Sy, winner of the Best Actor César, the top French film award, for his performance), who knows nothing about assisting the disabled but everything about inspiring joie de vivre. Cue a high-speed chase with the cops and an involuntary first phone call to Phillippe’s longtime pen-pal girlfriend.
Because Philippe is white and Driss is black (in real life, the caregiver was of Algerian descent), some find The Intouchables racist, and scenes in which Driss guffaws at the opera (“they’re singing in German!”) or demonstrates how to shake ya ass to “Boogie Wonderland” in a room full of stuffy classical-music lovers certainly don’t come across as progressive. The movie’s true offense, however, is its sheer banality. Cluzet and Sy do what they can with their stock characters, but there’s nothing here that isn’t preordained and precious little that’s inventive or inspired; you just sit there ticking off the opposite-worlds clichés, with occasional tough-love clichés tossed in for variety’s sake. It’s so ordinary, in fact, that its runaway success in France seems weirdly troubling. Just what cultural need does it fulfill?