The Intouchables is a movie that’s so overly genial and perky that it’s easy to miss just how offensive it is – not to mention extraordinarily banal. This is another in a long line of movies in which we are introduced to a free-spirited minority who turns the world of an uptight, white household on its head. A wealthy quadriplegic hires Driss, a Senegalese immigrant, as his caregiver. Driss’ only qualification is that he doesn’t have any qualifications except for being, as our quadriplegic Philip says, merciless. Of course we don’t see much evidence of Driss being merciless or tough except we’re told he has a criminal record and we briefly see him living a bad neighborhood. He’s always good natured and non-threatening, never a man that feels dangerous in any way – except, naturally, that he’s black. Oh, and he’s willing to break rules to make Philip more comfortable or have more have fun. Never mind the lives that are being threatened as they speed down the road, away from the police – Philip wants to go fast!
This is another example of what Spike Lee has termed the Magical Negro character in U.S. fiction, now apparently not limited to U.S. movies. Driss’ irrepressible joie de vivre and exotic blackness are his “magical-ness” and they are enough to spark a new interest in life for Philip and his entire household, from his personal assistant to his housekeeper to his daughter, all of whom are stricken with problematic, but curable cases of uneasy whiteness.
While Omar Sy is wonderful as Driss (and is receiving just accolades and, thankfully, more work), his effort is wasted. We spend a couple hours watching Driss and Philip bond, share, laugh, and cry, but we don’t learn much of anything about what day to day life might be like for a quadriplegic. (Though I have heard from some handicapped friends that, unfortunately, the movie gets the horrid indifference of trained caregivers absolutely right.) And we end up knowing less than nothing about what life is like for Paris’ immigrants, the neighborhoods in which they live, and the issues they face.
And I think this lack of substance is why the movie has been so successful, especially in France, a country that has had tenuous relationships with their African and Arab immigrant communities. It’s a feel good story that doesn’t challenge its audiences or stir up nasty memories of race riots that rocked Paris several years back. It’s saccharine and empty-headed with nothing relevant to say about race relations, class, friendship, or disability. No wonder it’s grossed over $200 million.