What we have here is a feel-good film, particularly if you're the type of moviegoer who feels good about clichéd odd-couple moments and canned sentiment.
Driss (Omar Sy) is an African immigrant from the projects of Paris, and Phillippe (Francois Cluzet) is the quadriplegic millionaire who throws caution to the wind by hiring Driss as his caretaker. The staff of Phillippe's estate keeps alluding to the high turnover rate for caregivers as though moving into a mansion in order to look after a sensitive, intelligent man is way harder than ordinary caregiving jobs. Things start off rocky, but soon Driss displays a natural talent for the work, and a friendship forms. Phillippe is cultured and a little uptight. He writes romantic poetry to women and enjoys opera. Driss is a loose cannon who drives fast, listens to '70s disco from America and tells it like it is. These characters come to respect and learn things from one another, and are ultimately changed by the experience. As far as the plot goes, that's really all you need to know. And you probably didn't even need me to know that.
The Intouchables was a blockbuster in France and has been largely well reviewed by American critics. The characters are likable and it can be funny at times, so maybe that's why. The film is at its best when it's being honest about class and what it's like to live with such a crippling disability. When Driss forgets to strap Phillippe in his chair and Phillippe starts to tip over: That's stellar comedy. And when Phillippe wakes in the night unable to breathe, the movie understands that this has less to do with a genuine medical emergency than with the straight-up fear a chronically-infirm person goes to bed with every night, knowing that they might not wake up in the morning. But this is a film that favors sentiment over reality, and so we don't wallow in the darkness for long.
The Intouchables is based on a true story, which is odd, because one of its main problems is its lack of plausibility. We're meant to believe that Driss is a bad seed who could only blossom under the tutelage of a broken but wise white man. But in fact, he's smart and charismatic from the start; it's hard to believe he'd have such a hard time in life with a smile like that. There's a romance that blossoms late in the film. Without giving too much away, I'll say that what's implied is unlikely, at best.
Never will you be more aware that you're watching a movie instead of having a poignant visceral experience than at the three-quarter mark, when the plot requires the odd couple to part ways for a time. Phillippe whispers to Driss something like, "Go. Just go." (Allons-y! as we used to say in French class. On y va!)
"But why, Phillippe?"
"Oh, never mind why. Something to do with your troubled brother, let's say. Because we need to subject the audience to a series of scenes featuring the two of us looking miserable without one another."
The questions persist: Does someone in a wheelchair with unlimited resources really need a black man to instruct him on the innocent pleasures of weed and cigarettes? Remind me again what's so inherently transformative about looking out a window?