- - Thursday, May 31, 2012

‘The Intouchables,” a wildly successful French comedy that trades on racial cliches, manages to be charming and offensive at the same time.

Let’s stipulate that the French do not do race well. They have a high tolerance for stereotypes and little regard for anyone who takes offense at such bigotry, unless — naturellement — the person taking offense is French.

Within this context, it’s easy to see how French audiences would embrace a movie about a millionaire quadriplegic facing a lonely late-middle age who befriends a cocky, uneducated Senegalese immigrant. I don’t want to go overboard bashing the French — the film bears a strong likeness to a certain strain of American movies. “The Green Mile,” “The Legend of Bagger Vance” and “Driving Miss Daisy” all demand the selfless devotion of a black helper to bring about the actualization of a white protagonist. But there is something peculiarly French in the blase manner in which this potentially complex, challenging relationship is played almost exclusively for laughs.

Omar Sy plays Driss, an ex-con who applies for a job as a caretaker for Phillipe (Francois Cluzet) because he needs to show he has applied for jobs in order to claim his unemployment benefit. Driss is a bit of a hustler, oversexed and a great dancer, but to his credit Mr. Sy plays Driss as an individual who has cultivated these traits for his own benefit. Phillipe sees a challenge in the contemptuous, cocky Driss, who mocks Phillipe’s art, his handicap and his pretensions as a poet.

Driss moves into Phillipe’s lavish Paris apartments, and he spends much of his time there gawking at the luxuries suddenly at his disposal. The fish-out-of-water material works for a while — Mr. Sy is a wonderfully charismatic actor, and his performance establishes Driss, though a thief and a bounder, as the moral center of the film.

Phillipe, conversely, is a creature confined and constrained less by disability than by grief for his dead wife. At the same time, his total dependence on his staff leaves him joyless and cold. He takes pleasure in the company of Driss because the caretaker appears too selfish to pity another soul.

The friendship that grows between Phillipe and Driss feels genuine, and is tested by a slew of contrived conflicts, but nothing very dire disturbs the upbeat feel of the film. Mr. Sy and Mr. Cluzet are backed by a talented crew of supporting players in small but key roles that give the film some of its enduring buoyancy. Anne Le Ny is wonderful as Yvonne, the housekeeper who is initially suspicious of Driss, but who is eventually won over.

In the end, “The Intouchables” wants to make race an afterthought — and it’s tempting to permit it. The characters positively ooze with a charisma that is infectious. There is much that is silly and even embarrassing about the film, but on balance it is so good natured and appealing that these misdemeanors can be overlooked.

★★½

TITLE: “The Intouchables” (in French, with English subtitles)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano

RATING: R for profanity (translated from the French), drug use

RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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