In these United States of America, it may be all about The Avengers and Avatar and Armageddon, but in the rest of the world, where subtitles aren't viewed as a national threat but as a fact of life, there's also been room for The Intouchables on the all-time box office champs list.
A global word-of-mouth smash, this French seriocomedy has earned an astonishing $350 million, a hefty figure that has allowed it to become the highest grossing non-English-language film in history. That such a slender but admittedly agreeable movie would be the one to hold such a distinguished title seems a tad disheartening, considering all of the truly great foreign flicks that have come before it. Then again, Americans spent that same amount to go see Transformers: Dark of the Moon, so who am I - or any other stateside citizen - to criticize?
It's easy to see the feel-good appeal of The Intouchables (simply Intouchables in France), which currently ranks #80 on IMDb's Top 250 list (just above, uh, Kurosawa's landmark Rashomon). Based on a true story, it centers on the relationship between Philippe (Francois Cluzet), a millionaire who's been a quadriplegic ever since a paragliding accident, and his caretaker Driss (Omar Sy), an ex-con from the projects who reluctantly accepts the position even though he had planned on continuing to collect those welfare checks. Philippe is cultured, reserved, but not without a sense of humor; Driss is boisterous, crude, and willing to joke about anything. Philippe appreciates that Driss doesn't pity him - if anything, Driss goes out of his way to mock his employer's immobile condition, his love for the arts, and his taste in music (he asserts that Bach was an "18th century Barry White") - and it's not long before the men come to genuinely care for each other.
There's been some criticism regarding the decision of writer-directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano to turn Driss into a black man (something he wasn't in real life), but I'm inclined to think that choice was made in order to cast the popular comedian Omar Sy in the role. Still, the film's examination of class differences is often heavy-handed and condescending - when Driss, who shares a tiny bathroom in his slum home with a half-dozen family members, first spots the luxurious bathroom that will be his and his alone in Philippe's house, did we really need to hear Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria" playing in the background?
Some plotting issues also threaten to undermine the goodwill generated by both the film and its characters. At one point, Philippe elects to send Driss back to the projects to tend to his family, a decision that makes no sense considering Philippe's enormous wealth (he couldn't have helped the family himself?) and the dead-end options available to Driss there. (If this vignette was based on fact, the real-life Philippe suddenly becomes a lot less appealing, though of course here his decision is framed as a noble one.)
Thankfully, the superb lead performances hold everything together. Initially, Cluzet (known to U.S. art-house audiences for the hit thriller Tell No One) seems to have the more difficult role, since he can only move from the neck up - his stillness requires as much attention to detail as would, say, a performer essaying the role of an ice skater.
But over the course of the picture, it's Sy who snags MVP honors (indeed, he beat Cluzet for France's Best Actor Cesar Award). He's strong in the dramatic moments, but he's even better when his character is allowed to cut loose and display a skewered joie de vivre. He rises to the top even when the script tries to hold him down.
THE COLD LIGHT OF DAY
It's difficult to feel sorry for pampered Hollywood stars who make more money in an hour than most of us make in our lifetimes, but there is a pang of pity whenever a formidable talent is reduced to appearing in dreck like this. Sigourney Weaver, who last year suffered the indignity of backing up Taylor Lautner, for God's sake, in the daft Abduction, now finds herself essaying the role of the villain in another action flick that's nearly as dopey. As the duplicitous CIA agent Jean Carrack, she squares off against Will Shaw (Henry Cavill), who's after a briefcase that Carrack swiped from Middle Eastern spies (we never learn the contents of the briefcase, but don't expect a denouement worthy of Kiss Me Deadly or Pulp Fiction). The ruffians are holding Will's family hostage, and they'll kill the clan unless the briefcase is returned to them. Carrack isn't about to let that happen, and with the help of her weaponry and her vehicle, she seemingly destroys half of Madrid to achieve her goal.
It's hard to tell whether Weaver is patterning her performance after Schwarzenegger's taciturn turn in The Terminator or if she's merely embarrassed by the whole thing, but either way, she's woefully ineffectual. Cavill will be playing Superman in the upcoming Man of Steel, but based on his charisma-free work here, he appears to be no Christopher Reeve - or Brandon Routh, for that matter. As for the film itself, its dialogue is dull, its characters even more so, and its action sequences pack all the excitement of a Tide commercial. It seeks to emulate the Bourne films but merely ends up stillborn.
For approximately a quarter-century, we've been witnessing a remarkable renaissance in the animation field, blessed with a number of toon flicks that have constantly tried to up the ante in regard to more complex storylines, richer character development and, of course, revolutionary graphics: Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Beauty and the Beast, Toy Story, Chicken Run and Spirited Away all managed to introduce viewers to something they hadn't quite experienced before. Pixar/Disney's Oscar-winning Finding Nemo, which has been theatrically re-released in 3-D on the eve of its Blu-ray debut, comes close to such touchstone status only in one respect: Its animation is truly stunning, awash (pun intended) in a dazzling array of colors and creating the impression of a living, breathing sea.
As for the storyline, it's a familiar one to anybody who's ever sat through earlier Disney films (both animated and live-action), employing elements previously seen in everything from Bambi (loss of a parent) to Pinocchio (accepting responsibility) to The Incredible Journey (braving impossible odds to be reunited with a loved one). Albert Brooks provides the voice for Marlin, a timid clown fish and single parent who's raising his young son Nemo (Alexander Gould) to the best of his abilities. Despite Marlin's suffocating attention, Nemo still manages to get captured by a deep-sea diver and eventually deposited in an aquarium that rests in a dentist's office in Sydney, Australia. Determined not to lose his son, Marlin begins a long, arduous rescue mission across the sea, teaming up with an overly exuberant fish (Ellen DeGeneres) suffering from short-term memory loss.
For all its visual splendor and adult-oriented gags (nods to Psycho, Jaws and The Shining are included), Finding Nemo falls short of most Pixar films primarily because many of its characters lack depth. Unlike, say, Toy Story, where each player is beautifully delineated, too many here seem more like "types" than unique individuals.
Still, it's downright curmudgeonly to remain focused on the negatives when the rest of the picture is saturated with invention and wit. With Pixar's hot streak ending with Cars 2, this critical and commercial smash serves as a reminder that things have generally gone swimmingly for a company that continues to set the high watermark in animated entertainment.