The midnight car chase that opens the odd-couple buddy picture "The Intouchables" is fresh and unpredictable — qualities that the movie, unfortunately, never quite achieves again, although it isn't without its charms. A smart hook, that introductory sequence piques curiosity about the two men in the speeding Maserati, a seemingly mismatched duo whose bond clearly runs deep.
In this sentimental feel-good saga of an ultrawealthy quadriplegic and the petty criminal who becomes his caretaker, the chemistry between the two lead actors goes a considerable way toward elevating the broad-strokes culture clash. That's crucial to a film that is, in essence, a love story.
Basing their dramatic comedy on a real-life friendship, writer-directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano aim for wide appeal (and have achieved it — "Intouchables" was France's most-watched film of 2011 and one of its all-time box-office champions on home turf and elsewhere in Europe).
It's no surprise that a Hollywood remake is in the works; this is thoroughly commercial moviemaking that calls to mind an array of high-concept crowd-pleasers, including "Driving Miss Daisy" and "Scent of a Woman."
The material is programmed to stimulate funny bones and tear ducts in a reassuring alternating pattern.
The charismatic Omar Sy received a Cesar,France'sOscar equivalent, for his breakout performance as Senegal-born Driss, a young man of indefatigable exuberance despite his recent jail stint for robbery and uneasy return to the projects. When he applies for the job of caretaker to Philippe — played with incisive restraint by Francois Cluzet ("Tell No One") — he's eager to fast-track the expected rejection so that he can collect his government benefits.
But the middle-aged widower, permanently injured in a paragliding accident, sparks to Driss' impropriety and, especially, his lack of pity.
Philippe chooses Driss over qualified candidates, and the high jinks and heart-tugging are under way.
In the obvious comedy syntax of the movie, each instance of Driss balking at a chore or activity is quickly succeeded by a shot of him engaging in said chore or activity. Through it all, he infuses his employer's days with new energy — Cluzet is terrific at making the paralyzed Philippe's joy evident through the tiniest shift in his gaze.
Other than the connection between Driss and Philippe (and a nicely underplayed supporting performance by Anne Le Ny, as one of Philippe's assistants), little in the movie feels true or really matters. Subplots involving Driss' younger sibling, Philippe's teenage daughter and an epistolary romance between Philippe and a woman he's never met all come across as screenplay concoctions, utilitarian but uninvolving.
The comic shtick that finds Driss laughing at fine art, opera and classical music is tired at best, notwithstanding Sy's immense likability.
The riff reaches a low point in a party scene where the streetwise glad-hander shows uptight white folks how to let loose and get down to Earth, Wind & Fire. At such moments it's understandable why some critics have accused the film of racism.
But it would be more accurate to say that it's chock-full of cliches about the hidebound haves and the free-spirited have-nots.
Handed blatantly manipulative stereotypes, Cluzet and Sy locate the emotional truth in their characters' friendship. Opening scene aside, though, the movie keeps them within the speed limit and on the well-established route to sappiness.
'The Intouchables' -- 3 stars
MPAA rating: R (for language and some drug use; in French with English subtitles)
Running time: 1:52