*** (out of four)
No sense burying the story here: The French dramedy “The Intouchables” has earned more than $300 million worldwide, but several American critics have alleged racism. On some level, the movie (based on a true story) does focus on a Senegalese man named Driss (Omar Sy) and the liveliness he adds to the life of rich, white paraplegic Philippe (Francois Cluzet). Driss brings Philippe to pierce his ear and teaches his older, squarer employer about the wonders of Earth, Wind and Fire.
There’s legitimacy to the claim that Driss, who has a criminal record and no discernible ambition until he stumbles onto a fondness for painting, recalls the portrayal of black characters in the 1930s, who existed only as grinning, culture-less sidekicks to the white characters.
Driss, however, receives far more shading than the racist claims imply. He’s not a blankly smiling buffoon, as black characters were so offensively depicted with the “sambo” stereotype on screen. Driss possesses inherent kindness, despite a difficult upbringing and some poor choices. Philippe hires Driss not as a minstrel to entertain him but because Driss does not mince words. He’s the only candidate who expresses no pity toward Philippe and talks to him like a person, not a person with a problem.
Most applicants throw in the towel after a week, Driss is told. He could give up on life, just like Philippe could give up on life. The employee may not particularly want to assist with the less glamorous aspects of caring for someone who cannot care for himself, but Driss steps up and works to improve his own life and that of the man he’s hired to care for.
In fact, more than the overrated “Moneyball,” “The Intouchables” touches on notions of perceived value. Philippe delights in classical music; Driss hears it and recalls a coffee ad that used the piece, or simply the music he hears when waiting on hold.
So is this a heartwarming story of the bond that develops between two unlikely friends, or a racist tale of a white guy finding a new groove from a black man who’s moving on up? It’s certainly not as racist as Queen Latifah funking up Steve Martin in “Bringing Down the House,” or Michael Oher becoming the shallow supporting character in his own story in “The Blind Side.”
That doesn’t mean that the often very funny “The Intouchables” doesn’t rely on some racial and narrative conventions, particularly as Driss helps Philippe feel ready to open himself up to a relationship many years after his wife passes away. It means that “The Intouchables” centers on a great, splendidly acted character who shouldn’t be seen as a racist stereotype just because, say, he doesn’t want to sit through a four-hour opera. Neither do I!
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