Can there be a more insulting "fish out of water" trope than putting a bored black man in front of a chamber orchestra, then holding for laughs? It's where poor Omar Sy finds himself as Driss, the street-savvy, reluctant caretaker of Philippe (François Cluzet), a charming and disenchanted quadriplegic. Neither is happy to be there, but at the opening strains of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Driss is delighted. "Everyone knows this!" he exclaims. "It's what plays when you're on hold with the benefits line!"
Driss then offers his own worldview to the room by playing (I kid you not) a little Earth, Wind and Fire. The stuffy, moneyed guests have their minds duly blown by the 6-foot Senegalese man re-enacting Soul Train for their edification.
To be fair, French cinema has been less plagued by minstrels and blackface. American audiences have much more baggage, knowing there has been a very deliberate effort to snuff out typecast racism in our films (although we are still grappling with the unfortunate "white lady saves the day" genre). In France, The Intouchables is experiencing record-breaking ticket sales. Stateside, there has been a bit more pearl-clutching, but for good reason. Keep in mind that The Intouchables is based on a true story—one in which the caretaker was Arab. Why would writer-director Olivier Nakache feel compelled to change Driss' ethnic background? Are Arab stereotypes harder to mine for laughs? Is the French-Arab condition too complicated to joke about on a superficial level?
Yet the film doesn't collapse on itself, thanks to the palpable chemistry between Cluzet and Sy. The victim of a paragliding accident, wealthy Philippe is so bored with his situation that he has nothing to gain from standing on ceremony with Driss. Instead, he takes pleasure in Driss' company and comes to admire his caretaker. Unlike the movie's tone, there is no condescension here. Driss, for his part, is a joy to be around, lowbrow humor notwithstanding. In service to Philippe (and the plot), his brash ex-con ways lead him to push his employer and friend to take greater risks in life and love. It's a testament to Sy's comedic timing that he doesn't come off as a caricature, even if this seems to have been Nakache's intention. Thankfully, this charming duo is given a few moments to have fun with, in the form of the high-speed chase in a Maserati that bookends the film. It's a much-deserved break for all involved.
SEE IT: The Intouchables opens Friday at Fox Tower.