Detractors of, say, Wong Kar-wai sometimes theorize that his movies’ swooning, romantic dialogue only plays well to Western audiences because it’s delivered via subtitles; if not for the diluting effect of onscreen text, we might choke on its sweetness. The same goes for The Intouchables, a thick tranche of honey-glazed ham in which an unemployed African immigrant (Omar Sy) plays caretaker to a cantankerous French quadriplegic (François Cluzet). Writer-directors Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache shamelessly lift huge chunks from formulaic Hollywood tales of mutual uplift—think Wheeling Miss Daisy—but it turns out even moldy leftovers go down more smoothly with Béarnaise sauce. (Note: Rather than translating the movie’s French title, with its unwanted associations with gun-toting T-men, the Weinstein Company inventively decided to simply slap the word “The” in front of it.)
Sy, last seen as Micmacs’ Remington, has a thousand-watt smile, although it isn’t seen much at first. Interviewing for jobs solely to keep the dole checks coming, he applies as a home health aide to the wealthy Cluzet, who’s paralyzed from neck to toes as a result of a paragliding accident. But Sy’s brusqueness sets him apart from the parade of obsequious interviewers Toledano and Nakache dispense with in a brief flurry of editing, and since Cluzet has a history of burning through sensitive souls in a fortnight, he instinctively offers Sy the position in spite of his lack of experience, or even interest.
The Intouchables pulls a minor reversal on the expected formula in Sy and Cluzet’s first exchange. Cluzet asks whether Sy is familiar with Berlioz, and Sy takes the reference as being to a low-rent neighborhood rather than the classical composer. The twist—it’s small, but any is welcome—is that Sy is simply winding up this stuffy aristocrat, playing off the white man’s assumption of his ignorance. Unfortunately, while Sy’s quick wits remain a constant, the movie quickly reverts to type, casting Sy as a noble savage who gets an instruction in life’s finer things while teaching the rich folks how to let their hair down. (That, sadly, isn’t a metaphor: After Cluzet hijacks an orchestra to play Sy classical music’s greatest hits, Sy cues up “Boogie Wonderland” and gets a roomful of rich folks in evening wear to shake their stuff.) Sy and Cluzet give their parts more conviction than they deserve, even when the former is forced to re-enact the falsetto-singing-in-the-bubblebath bit from Pretty Woman. But even their energy can’t revive a corpse this dead.