Throughout their long and celebrated entrepreneurial careers, first with Miramax and now their own eponymous label, the Weinstein Bros. have exhibited a true instinct for middlebrow productions that will play well in art houses, especially if they have subtitles.
This is to take nothing away from the occasional strokes of genius when they back the right horse, say with Tarantino or “Shakespeare in Love.” But such cinematic lightning bolts don’t pay the yearly bills. It’s movies such as the bizarrely entitled French film “The Intouchables” that does the trick.
Neither brother is going to body slam his way on stage to accept a best picture award at the Oscars for such a sentimental and dramatically sloppy film. But “The Intouchables” (it’s the same title in French) should win the hearts if not minds of North American audiences just as it collected audience awards at the San Francisco Film Festival, COL-COA and the Nashville Film Festival.
The film is all emotional calculation but thanks to its lead performers, who play off one another like experienced vaudevillians doing their classic routines, few will mind. You might notice that at the end you’ve gained absolutely no insight into the plight of the handicapped or inner-city minorities or even into the vagaries of the human heart — the film’s ostensible subjects — but the two actors have so engaged you with their routines, you hardly notice.
These would be François Cluzet and Omar Sy. Cluzet, best known to Yank audiences for his remarkable turn in Guillame Canet’s smash “Tell No One” (for which he received a Best Actor César), plays a wealthy paraplegic named Philippe, who impulsively hires as his caretaker Sy’s Driss, a Senegalese-born ex-con from the banlieues (the projects on the outskirts of Paris), who has only a passing understanding of true responsibility.
So you put it together — it’s “The Odd Couple” meet “Driving Miss Daisy.”
Driss is the least qualified candidate to show up for an interview for the caretaker position. Indeed he only did so to keep his welfare payments coming. But Philippe likes one thing that would turn off most long-term patients — Driss’ complete lack of pity. Philippe has had enough of that from everyone else in his life, thank you.
And so begins the pair’s adventures together starting, rather predictably, with near catastrophes resulting from Driss’ complete lack of responsibility and escalating to all sorts of naughty escapades from pot smoking — really, pot smoking, that old gimmick? — to paragliding, the very thing that injured Philippe in the first place. Along the way they learn about each other’s lives and Driss gradually comes to like and even admire his underdemanding boss.
The real-life pair the movie is based on are Franco-Italian multi-millionaire Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and Algerian-born Abdel Sellou, who had just come out of prison for armed bank robbery. The writers-directors changed the nationality of the caregiver, of course, to bring in Sy, with whom they worked in previous films. It was a very smart move as the film is unimaginable without him. What they might have considered changing as well, assuming they drew these adventures from real life as well, are the lame story points throughout the movie.
Too many subplots sputter and die. There’s one involving Philippe’s spoiled teenage daughter Elisa (Alba Gaïa Bellugi) that never really goes anywhere and somehow ends up with Driss physically intimidating a boyfriend into being nicer to her. Another involves Driss’ sexual pursuit of one of Philippe’s key assistants (Audrey Fleurot) whose interest in him is spectacularly unenthusiastic. While we’re on these points, the film wins no medals for social consciousness by its clichéd portrayal of a banlieu black as a physically threatening, sexually-driven predator.
There are also two rather curious subplots. In one Philippe corresponds with a woman on the Atlantic Coast in a vague hope of romance. Driss encourages this even though about the only erotic stimulus Philippe is capable of is to have his ears massaged. The other and even less likely subplot has Philippe subjecting the resistant Driss to culture in the form of opera and art museum visits. Though highly disdainful of art, Driss nevertheless starts splashing paint on a canvas and the next thing you know he sells it for beaucoup Euros. Are we supposedly to believe that?
The point, of course, is not what they do but how Driss’ antics make Philippe feel human again. This is where the movie shines. Philippe’s generous laughs at his companion’s sweetly amoral antics and Driss’ dances at his boss’ parties — again more black clichés but you start getting used to them — let the film catch comic fire. The timing in the gags and the lovely chemistry between the co-stars make the screenplay’s failures more than palatable. These are fine performances and all the more so given the paucity of their material.
The film peters out in yet another confusing subplot involving Driss’ banlieu family and the matriarch’s many children by many men, one of whom turns up at Philippe’s swank digs and lays claim to Driss’ involvement in affairs that apparently are becoming more and more criminal.
“The Intouchables” is fluff but at its core beats a human heart and a remarkable pairing of actors that set all things right. The film’s technical side is always competent so the film glides by without any fuss at all.
Like I said, the Weinsteins know how to pick ’em.
Opens: May 25 (Weinstein Co.)
Production companies: Gaumont, Quad, TFI Films, Ten Films, Chadcorp
Cast: François Cluzet, Omar Sy, Anne Le Ny, Audrey Fleurot, Clotilde Mollet
Directors/screenwriters: Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano
Producers: Nicolas Duval Adassovsky, Yann Zenou, Laurent Zeitoun
Director of photography: Mathieu Vaudepied
Production designer: François Emmanuelli
Music: Ludovico Einaudi
Costume designer: Isabelle Pannetier
Editors: Dorian Rigal Ansous
R rating, 112 minutes