The hit movie Intouchables was seen by 20 million people in French theaters in 2012, and a U.S. remake is set to be released in January 2019. American critics are waiting to pounce, having already denounced the racial prejudices in the original film. The question is, will this comedy drama on the theme of disability win over American audiences?
Do not mistake the French movie for anything to do with Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables. While the similar title may create confusion Intouchables, is a French film based on the true story of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, as recounted in his book, Le Second Souffle. Played by Francois Cluzet in the original movie, the tetraplegic aristocrat hires Driss (Omar Sy) as his home carer. The young man from the projects is of Senegalese descent, has rather unorthodox methods, and has just been released from prison. The movie goes on to portray the profound relationship that develops between the two seemingly opposed men.
“The name Intouchables is a reference to the Indians who were cast out of society, just like the two main characters,” said the directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano in 2012. “Driss is filled with vitality but he is black, poor, and lives in the projects. His disability is purely social. In comparison, Philippe is a certain embodiment of privileged France. A vision of the country as rich, white, and yet paralyzed.” Drawing on this bodily parable, the original work offers a barrage of jokes about physical disabilities and problems of social integration to better deconstruct them.
Originally released in 2011, Intouchables is the second most successful French film in the United States after Luc Besson’s blockbuster Lucy. The triumph of this feel-food movie à la française immediately inspired producers to create a remake. Harvey Weinstein — the original film’s distributor — bought the U.S. remake rights. But after several failed attempts, filming only started in January 2017 directed by Neil Burger, the man behind the hugely successful movie Limitless.
The new version has largely kept the same storyline as the original but set it in New York. Bryan Cranston, star of the series Breaking Bad, has replaced François Cluzet (Tell No One, Little White Lies, Irreplaceable) in the role of Phillip Lacasse, a Park Avenue billionaire confined to a wheelchair after a hang-gliding accident. Comedian Kevin Hart plays Dell, replacing Omar Sy (Jurassisc World, Samba, Inferno). Having abandoned his life as a small-time crook, Dell is hired by Phillip to be his personal carer, supervised by Nicole Kidman who plays his assistant.
The Upside still falls into racial stereotyping — a black, absent father and former crook giving a cultivated, wealthy, white man a new lease on life — which saw Intouchables heavily criticized when it was released in the United States. “Intouchables […] flings about the Uncle Tom racism one hopes has permanently exited American screens,” wrote film critic Jay Weyssberg in Variety in 2012. “Driss is treated as nothing but a performing monkey (with all the racist associations of such a term), teaching the stuck-up white folk how to get “down” by replacing Vivaldi with ‘Boogie Wonderland’ and showing off his moves on the dance floor. The role is barely removed from the jolly house slave of yore, entertaining the master.”
As the French directors see things, this sort of accusation reflects the cultural divide between France and the United States: “The issue of race remains a touchy subject in the U.S.A., where black-white relations are still subject to prejudice. From an American point of view, a movie is racist as soon as the roles of black and white people are not interchangeable. It might seem indelicate, but it’s far from stupid!”
For now The Upside is enjoying a more positive reception from critics due to its more tactful approach to the question of race, without however avoiding other social clichés, according to The Hollywood Reporter. But the result is still a highly comical movie, largely thanks to its excellent duo of leading actors.
Release date: January 11, 2019
Running time: 118 min
Director: Neil Burger
With: Brian Cranston, Kevin Hart, Nicole Kidman, Julianna Margulies, Aja Naomi King