So there's an old joke, known better in France than here, in which a child asks his mother to get him a piece of chocolate from a high shelf. She tells him to get it himself. He reminds her that he can't, for he hasn't any arms. The mother's Reaganesque reply is the punchline: "Well ... no arms, no chocolate."
"The Intouchables," the very funny drama now running sparsely in the U.S. after becoming one of the top-earning movies in French cinematic history, conveys the joke a bit differently. Driss, a charismatic petty criminal unexpectedly turned caregiver, is visiting a gallery with his employer, Philippe, a wealthy older man whom an accident has left paralyzed below his neck. After a short debate over the merits of a canvas smattered with an image of bright scarlet blood, Philippe, irritated, changes the subject by asking for one of the M&Ms Driss is munching. The young man tells him to his face, "no arms, no chocolate." The English subtitles read "no handy, no candy." Still, you get that Driss is having a laugh at Philippe's expense — one of many, in fact. Against your better impulses, you too will be giggling in a paraplegic's face.
Philippe and Driss are based on two real people: Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, an aristocratic former Champagne executive who was paralyzed in 1993, and his caretaker Abdel Sellou, whose memoir of their friendship, "You Changed My Life," inspired the film. Both the directing and screenwriting credits are shared between Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache; they favor dredging the dark humor out of Philippe's paralysis and burnishing it to a high sheen. Philippe deadpans his grim acceptance, and welcomes Driss' complete lack of babying — on down to the chagrined caretaker's revulsion at the prospect of manually aiding Philippe's bowel movements, or "ass-emptying," as he puts it. When the phone rings, Driss hands it toward Philippe and goes back to his business. Rather than bristle, Philippe rather appreciates that Driss forgets Philippe's incapacities. In such oversights friends are made.
Though it does fall waist-deep into cliches of race and class, the story arc and tone of "The Intouchables" work more as a nontraditional romantic comedy than the lachrymose tear-jerker that Hollywood might've burped out given the same source material. Foremost, the lead actors astonish throughout. Francois Cluzet plays Philippe with a deadpan reserve that complements Omar Sy's hyperexpressive Driss. Sy is blessed with features that fill the screen: an ample nose, a long face, a broad smile — his every expression and emotion are amplified, and yet the hilarious performance he spins also feels stealthily natural, from his irrational cockiness to a curious infatuation with Earth, Wind & Fire (exemplified in a high-speed driving sing-along to "September" in phonetic English).
Early on in "The Intouchables" you won't be certain whether you're laughing with a quadriplegic or at him, and it's only Philippe's pleasure at being treated indelicately that allows the audience to relax. In an interview the real Pozzo di Borgo gave recently to the German newspaper Der Speigel, he advocated humor for anyone who, like him, owes every basic need to the good will of others. "People are afraid of us," he said. "The only thing we can do is to seduce them, with our smiles and with our humor. Once we've made the connection, we're home free. Touch us!" Perhaps if it weren't for the famous Prohibition movie of the same name, the film's English title would be translated as "The Untouchables," though in every facet of the word, the film insists that no one cannot be touched. The overall effect, in its compassion and joy, is downright disarming.