On the surface, The Intouchables sounds like another trite, feel-good movie about a mismatched pair of unlikely friends, who come together to inspire each other despite overwhelming odds.
Neither blockbuster nor sequel to a franchise film, Intouchables still has a "touch" of formula. Co-directors/writers Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano found characters worth caring about, cast actors adept at making you feel for them and surrounded the stars with an inspirational narrative centered on meaningful, affecting human growth.
Omar Sy plays the aimless yet amiable Driss, entirely unsure of what to do with his life after being released from prison. Ultra-wealthy quadriplegic Philippe (François Cluzet) is looking for a new caretaker. The hardheaded, demanding Driss halfheartedly applies for the job, never expecting to get it. But Philippe is struck by his tough manner, specifically his refusal to treat Philippe differently than he would someone with a fully-functional body.
Driss is hired and moves into Philippe’s lavish Parisian estate. From there the movie sets off through familiar coming-of-age/mutual healing territory. But throughout the trek, the film never loses touch with its fundamental grounding in dramatic authenticity. Small, tender scenes detailing the complex processes Driss must follow while caring for Philippe are given the same weight as the characters’ humorous conversations about women or music, or the methods with which the patient empowers his caretaker to turn his life around.
This is demonstrated from the opening sequence, in which Driss is driving his new employer back into the city in his Maserati Quattroporte and they are stopped by police. Driss is predictably hurled against the hood with hands drawn behind his back, but Phillipe saves the day by "simulating" a stroke and the pair end up getting a polic escort straight to the hospital.
The movie further enhances the power of that shared journey by boasting a strong sense of place and a well-crafted visual style that never let you forget the considerable differences in the protagonists’ backgrounds. Philippe’s opulent, antiques-laden home starkly contrasts with the drab, crowded apartment occupied by Driss’ family. The classical music Philippe prefers clashes with Driss’ love for R&B. The film, then, achieves considerable emotional highs when the characters come together to share an experience, as when Philippe takes Driss hang gliding high above the rolling hills of the countryside.
More than anything, though, The Intouchables owes a big chunk of its success to its actors. Sy and Cluzet augment the well-crafted script with full-fledged, big-hearted performances that make it easy to care for their characters. They transcend whatever formulaic underpinnings might be there by opting for empathetic naturalistic takes that hone in on the deeper, humane truths at the core of each man’s experience. Driss needs to know that he’s capable of contributing to something important. Philippe wants to feel whole again. And the actors are never less than genuine as they construct the powerful bond that propels each man toward that cathartic place.