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Review - "The Intouchables" Is Like "Bringing Down The House" Minus The Negro Spiritual

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act May 24, 2012 at 11:04AM

Maybe I’m just numb after almost 12 months of coverage of this film on S&A; but I came out of my screening of it, and the most I could muster up in terms of a reaction to what I saw was just a shrug.
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Intouchables

Maybe I’m just numb after almost 12 months of coverage of this film on S&A; but I came out of my screening of it, and the most I could muster up in terms of a reaction to what I saw was just a shrug.

I wasn’t moved strongly in any direction, despite the international brouhaha that led up to my screening, over what some Stateside film critics had concisely labeled a modern-day minstrel show.

I find these the most difficult kinds of reviews to write – when the film leaves me apathetic, like this one did. I summarized my lack of any immediate strong reactions to the film (whether endearment or repulsion) to fatigue – intellectual and emotional; but not from actually watching the movie. The numbness was likely already there before I walked into the screening room.

I think most of you probably expect to be enraged by the film, given all that’s been said of it thus far – primarily the vehemently rebuffed "Magical Negro" archetype, as represented by star Omar Sy’s character.

But for those who do end up seeing it, expecting to be incensed by it, you might actually find it easier to dismiss the film, given just how giddy and shallow it is. Although I’d say that I really don’t think the producers of the film were intent on making something momentous or transgressive. I believe it's called "entertainment;" and whether you’re entertained by it will depend on just how much you are willing and/or able to overlook the film’s all-too-familiar trite stereotypes – at least, to those of you in the USA.

One thing that immediately came to me and stuck was that, it's as if the French are playing catch up. A film like this made in the USA today would most likely be met with much ridicule and derision from audiences (especially black audiences), because its character depictions and themes have been over-done in Hollywood cinema - that whole clashing of cultures thing; one black and from the hood (street-smart, tough, careless and carefree, almost always jovial and in a good mood. The forever happy, smiling Negro essentially. And of course he's salacious too); the other white and rich (*sophisticated*, stiff – and not just because he’s in a wheelchair – boring, and relatively dull); the two worlds collide, and naturally, each gives and takes from the other: the *unruly* black street thug becomes a bit more erudite and cultured; the uptight white sophisticate learns to loosen up a bit, take some risks, and live a more thrilling life.

Think Queen Latifah and Steve Martin in Bringing Down The House; two different movies altogether, with different narratives; but consider Steve Martin’s straight-laced, uptight attorney being introduced to a side of himself that is much different from the uptight WASP he is, all thanks to the less-than refined, non-Ivy League, loud and shocking Charlene’s intrusion on his life (as played by Latifah).

There's even a "teach the stiff white people how to dance" sequence in The Intouchables led by Omar Sy's thug in a suit.

If you found that movie entertaining, then you’ll probably enjoy The Intouchables as well. It’s not quite as crude, crass and unapologetic, but I’d say that the filmmakers clearly didn’t give any care at all to being PC with the material; and I actually kind of respect them for that. It’s just unfortunate that it comes wrapped up in this particularly unimaginative, pedestrian package, given just how often this dynamic has played out in North American movies especially.

But again, this isn’t an American movie, which is why I said earlier that it’s as if the French are playing catch-up. We’re talking about an *industry* in which African representation on screen lacks even more-so than it does here in the USA. So, by all accounts, Omar Sy’s role in The Intouchables, along with all the accolades he received in that country, after the film was released, is all very much a big deal, and some would say, progress.

Whereas for us here in the States, a film like this is actually regressive.

Yes, it’s one of those so-called audience-pleasing, feel-good movies; at least it’s supposed to be. And most people I know who’ve seen it, enjoyed it; some had reservations, but weren’t distracted enough by them to appreciate the film any less.

Although I'd say that given all the Stateside negative reviews I’d read before I saw it, I frankly was expecting a minstrel show, carrying into the theater with me, some definite concerns about how the character Omar Sy plays would be depicted. So I went in expecting to be insulted, but it's actually a lot more harmless than harmful. As I said earlier, it was just blah to me... well-made, well-produced blah, but still blah.

However, I can't say whether the concerns many of you may have (especially those here in the USA) about the film will be alleviated after seeing it. The sensitivity antennae are on full rise.

So, to summarize, it’s all-too familiar; we've seen it all before, this time it just comes wrapped in a different package and language. But some have and will find it entertaining enough, I'm sure.

As we’ve reported, The Weinstein Company is planning on remaking The Intouchables, with Colin Firth said to be interested in playing one half of the duo. Of course, we’re all wondering what actor will be cast in the role originated by Omar Sy.

As I said to one of my comrades, the interesting thing to me (and I wish we'd have asked the directors or Omar Sy about this, when we interviewed him on Monday) is that in the real-life story the film is based on, the character played by Omar Sy, Abdel Sellou, is Algerian in real life. But they went with the Senegalese Sy. The relationship between the countries, respective to France, as well as the differences in skin color between Sy and Sellou, stand out, even though both are of the Diaspora.

So I'm curious as to why the filmmakers didn't cast an Algerian actor, and went with Sy instead, in the French film.

And I'm now wondering whether there was any backlash from the French Algerian community against the making of the film, or the film itself, given how successful it's been, while not necessarily representing the *truth*.

And this will make the casting of that character here in the USA remake something to watch closely. He may not even be black/African. I recall Omar Sy saying that the Stateside equivalent of the relationship between the countries that two men in the original film/real life are from, would be akin to that between the USA and Mexico; so the character he plays in the original should really be played by a Mexican actor in the Hollywood remake.

We’ll see.

In the meantime, The Intouchables opens tomorrow, May 25th, in the USA, in a very limited release on just 4 screens. Although I’m sure it’ll expand to other cities in successive weeks, especially if it does well.

And we have an interview with Omar Sy that will be posted later today.

Trailer below:

This article is related to: The Intouchables, Omar Sy


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