During an impromptu job interview, Philippe (François Cluzet) asks Driss (Omar Sy) if he knows Vivaldi. That the younger man is not familiar with the composer is no surprise; Driss appears streetwise, perhaps, but as a North African refugee trying to get ahead in Paris, his appreciation of the classics is somewhat stunted. He does know Earth, Wind and Fire, however.
Vivaldi, it turns out, is a fair comparison for The Intouchables, an exuberant, life-affirming film that shies away from the complex structure of many imports in favor of a lyrical, unforgettable melody.
Despite a complete lack of experience, a genuine disinterest in the job, and the fact that he pocketed a rare Fabergé egg on his way out of Philippe's mansion, Driss is hired to be Philippe's caregiver. Why? Well, since this is a French film, it's fitting to say that Philippe—confined to a wheelchair following a parasailing accident some years earlier—admires Driss' joie de vivre. Of all the candidates for the position, Driss was the only one who looked like he could have fun on purpose.
They slowly begin to establish a trust and a dialogue, which is really as deep as The Intouchables wants to go. Certainly the writing and directing tandem of Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano could have ratcheted up the intensity here or there. Driss had been a small-time crook, and he could relapse, or Philippe's health could get a lot worse; either option would not be implausible. But this is not a film about those kinds of obstacles. It's about how a bond can form in the unlikeliest of places, and how certain moments can forge a friendship, no matter how else these two lives have unfolded. That's not the highest bar in the world to set, plot-wise, but it's no less easy to clear it. Most movies fumble the stories that seem easier to tell.
Admittedly, pairing a rich quadriplegic and an immigrant who lives in the ghetto is not a terribly new plot device. You could make a few cosmetic changes and have Driving Miss Daisy or Scent of a Woman; those who are grousing about this film's simple nature throw around those titles, bringing them up as though they're accusations. But Intouchables is too good-natured (and focused) to care about the name-calling; it just tells its story and lets the camera roll on two fantastic performances.
You may have seen Cluzet in another French export, the taut thriller Tell No One. He plays Philippe as a man only bound to his chair physically. Emotionally and in his imagination, he's still the guy who went parasailing. Perhaps that's why he's so drawn to Driss, who, despite his past and the hardscrabble life of many North African refugees, always wears a smile and looks for the best in every day.
Countering Cluzet, Omar Sy is positively infectious. His energy is the film's energy. At the apex of Artist-mania in France, Sy beat his fellow countryman Jean Dujardin for the Best Actor award at the Cesars, the French equivalent of the Oscars.
In just a few months, Intouchables has become the highest-grossing foreign film in history. Before it ever opened in the United States, the film had generated about $350 million overseas. The reason why is so simple that it's a wonder Hollywood even bothers with a parade of battleships and John Carters: Intouchables may seem like elevator music, Vivaldi perhaps, but it's playing a tune everyone catches themselves humming eventually.