‘The Intouchables’: uplifting without being cloying

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Most American critics damned “The Intouchables” with faint praise when the hit French drama opened here last year.

On paper — and even on the poster — the movie did sound and look like one of those cloying inspirational dramas about an unlikely common bond found between two very different men.

Add the fact that one of the men is rich, white, and wheelchair-bound and the other is black, unemployed and on welfare and you have the makings of something everyone endorses but avoids like the plague.

“The Intouchables” didn’t end up on any 10 best lists that I saw, and the year-end critics’ awards groups shunned it, but it was unusually popular for a foreign language film in limited U.S. release.

When a friend whose taste I respect told me she enjoyed it on a long plane trip — and was puzzled by the response here — I was glad to receive an advance copy of the DVD that is officially released today.

My friend is right. The movie is a powerful and often witty view of the friendship that develops between a gregarious ex-con named Driss (Omar Sy) and a wealthy Parisian (Francois Cluzet) who hires him to be his home care aide.

Based on a true story, “The Intouchables” contains few surprises but it is beautifully produced and the two lead actors are wonderful. What I feared could be a French “Bucket List” is instead a mostly restrained treament of material that would probably be unbearably gooey if Hollywood got its hands on the story.

Like many French commercial hits, the film is very slickly produced which is probably off-putting to American critics who like their foreign films austere — the movie is an entertainment designed to reach the largest audience possible.

The way the relationship develops between the two men seemed entirely believable to me and I liked the way writer-directors Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache showed them each nudging the other out of his comfort zone.

Philippe gives Driss a taste of the finer things in life — art, classical music, good food — and Driss pushes his employer to find unexpected pleasure in simpler things. There is a whiff of audience pandering in a subplot about “modern art” but the movie shows us the way two very different cultures meet in a manner that might have you wishing we could all take more chances like the ones these men do.

(“The Intouchables” is being released on DVD today by Sony Home Entertainment, and is also available from the major download services.)

Joe Meyers

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