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

Reviews
by Tambay A. Obenson
May 24, 2012 11:04 AM
16 Comments
  • |

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:

Reviews
  • |

More: The Intouchables, Omar Sy

You might also like:
Free Indie Movies and Documentaries    

16 Comments

  • Zeech | November 9, 2013 5:47 PMReply

    just quick you nailed it with the French playing catch up... yea this is a 'country' (not really just 4 cities and rest a nation of small hilly billy farmers) where the pork (white) woman will say 'I could luuuurve watching you Black people dance, I would watch you all night' which is not shocking what is, is when we actually smile and grin and shuffle coz the black folks there are playing catch up to US.
    ONE thing to add, is the brother is from Senegal not Algeria. Let this simmer, if you don't have any muslim friends to explain this google the History on Algerian war. The french are psychopathic when it comes to Algeria and Magreb countries. Singing dancing shuffling black folks from Mali, and the USA are good for amusement on the dance floor and the bedroom (which is good enough for a lot of us, lets face it) but the Arab Africans who sense of self is much much stronger are a challenge for the weak french stomach.
    Zeech left Paris for NY the dream of every talented and conscious brotha in euroland

  • Daniel Richardson | June 24, 2013 6:15 PMReply

    the film was fantastic; "buy her croissants every day"

  • Oscar | October 8, 2012 7:35 AMReply

    All I can say is that I'm grateful I'm nowhere near being a professional critic, so I could enjoy this film very much. I just loved how it made me feel, and to me that's the most important thing about any film I watch (I guess it's true, ignorance is bliss). I'll leave the witty analyses to 'the professionals'.

  • LW | September 15, 2012 8:16 PMReply

    I write for a magazine.. and do reviews.. It was a wonderful film.. ease up my friends. Its worth the subtitles if you do not know French, which is not my forte..

  • cleo | June 25, 2012 11:30 AMReply

    In saw it. If the dance scene was left out, it would be a better film. I'm not sure that the scene would have the same impact on Africans in France. He was dancing to Earth, Wind and Fire-- acting like an African American.

    On a deeper level it's about how the ultra-wealthy have become impotent-- just talking heads--that use their money to hire immigrants, to be their arms and legs, a phrase oft repeated in the film. I completely agree with the whoever wrote that the critics have no right to complain when the lauded The Help. At least it wasn't the tired theme of the white man or woman coming to rescue brown of black people ala The Help, Avatar, Dances with Wolves, etc., etc.

    Critics be damned. Go see it for yourself.

  • anon | May 29, 2012 9:41 AMReply

    white americans are such hypocrites they are only throwing this movie under the bus coz its french and shockingly they (americans) think they are so much more sophisticated and cultured in race relations as to not make a movie like this but they are STILL making movies like this as tambay alluded top in bdth. If this was american film it would be business as usual no hollopla -like the help wasnt regressive? lol!

  • No | May 26, 2012 11:14 AMReply

    It's interesting reading the other comments and notice how Josephine Baker wasn't mentioned. Baker arrived in p0st-WWI Paris and was the croissant of the town, and even in Berlin. Her dancing, with a banana tutu, captivated Parisians and the French, symbolizing the black/African/Magical Negro mystique. She also paved the way for African American expatriate community in Paris. However, the French have locked in their brains portraits of black Americans (and Africans) that is as restrictive as the one that white Americans have of some of their black compatriots. To some degree, Omar Sy's portrayal fits into the racial romance of the sexy, sensuous African who exist in nature, true to his animalistic form.

  • EP | May 26, 2012 12:25 AMReply

    Clashing cultures is just a comedic tool, not the theme of the movie.
    On Driss' side, it's about an immigrant (usual political scarecrow accused of taking the job of the locals or aggravating unemployment, being a weight to the local social systems such as healthcare, making petty criminality raise) who is limited in his social mobility by his lack of knowledge of french social codes and is going to get a crash course with someone who masters them with a rare perfection. It's also a (very traditional in french theater and cinema) popular wisdom character who manages a balanced and witty relationship with a high society character.
    For Driss, it's not about getting erudition from Philippe, it's about learning what makes Philippe tick, what the social codes he obeys to or values are. Because if Driss is able to play with the codes of the highest society, dealing with the rest of the society will be a piece of cake. It's the jokes about art (art being a very important social tag in the french society) : how to elicit sincere belly laughters from an aristocratic guy for a joke about art, instead of incomprehension or lessons, how to put a (potential) employer on Driss' side in 30 seconds when nothing in his socio-economic background or resume pleads in his favor.

    About african representation on screen, one can also simply call that evolution. Simply because there were nearly zero colored people in continental France 60 years ago. And that the first big generation of children of african-origin immigrants who are born in France is Omar's (30-40 years old people). It simply reflects a demographic evolution which gave that generation a "legitimacy" in mainstream cinema in the eyes of (older and conservative) people in command.

    Nobody even raised the race question in France while the original story was well-known, long before the movie.
    Race relations in France are completly different from the US.
    Here is a podcast (Act Three, 40:30 into the podcast www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/165/americans-in-paris) where an african-american woman who lives in Paris talks about how different her life is there, how her relationship with people is different, how she found out that stereotypes she was used to were actually "only american", how she thinks racism exists in France but in a completly different way.

  • JMac | May 25, 2012 2:33 PMReply

    Thanks for the review. Sounds sad considering the Toussaint L'Ouverture tv movie came out about the same time ... or maybe it just shows France is as schizophrenic as America is at times.

  • LeonRaymond | May 24, 2012 3:40 PMReply

    From firsthand knowledge, understand that France has a deeper Racist back bone than even this country at times, There are hardly any Black waiters in France at French Restaurants, they are trying to pass a law and they have wide support to have Muslim Women stripped of or shed their Burk'a's (not sure if I spelled it right forgive me) or face veils in public, and I could go on and on so for them this was not Racist in it's depiction of a Black Man. They see us all as entertainers even when some one tells them they no connection to the entertainment industry at all of are not interested in dancing, singing. sports etec, their question posed will be, "but sooner or later you will be good at one of those" They can't even possibly accept the Normal every day Black man , we all can fly as they see it!!!!

  • Jeni | May 24, 2012 2:46 PMReply

    I respectfully disagree about the Bringing Down the House comparison. That movie was too embarrassing to watch for more than a few minutes.

    I've said it before, but I went in with reservations, was a little uncomfortable at the immigrant stereotypes at the beginning, but Omar Sy won me over. He made the movie into something funnier and deeper than I expected. I'm harsh on mainstream movies and their characterizations of poor blacks, but once the movie started delving into the background of the characters, it passed the smell test.

  • jeni | May 24, 2012 2:49 PM

    ...and the remake should use a Latino if they want to preserve the movie's unspoken tones/tensions re immigrant relations.

  • Geneva Girl | May 24, 2012 2:27 PMReply

    In my initial review that I sent months ago, I think I'd suggested that the remake may not use a black man. It could easily go to Jackie Chan since he doesn't want to do action movies any more.

    I think that they might have picked Omar Sy instead of an Algerian because he starred in a popular television series and brought an audience to the film.

  • Reelblack | May 24, 2012 12:14 PMReply

    I found the movie to be well made and moving. Yes, the French are copying American pop films with their characterizations. I respect the fact that they spent some time showing Driss in the projects and among his family. It's not like hop pops out of "nowhere" to help the paraplegic out. But the Dancing scene has been done to death and definitely plays into some Magical Negro/ Billy Ray Valentine hybrid. Expect lots of Oscar nods for this one.

  • Donella | May 24, 2012 11:49 AMReply

    I agree that Bringing Down the House was a disappointment. If The Untouchables is similar, likely will not watch.

  • Cherish | May 24, 2012 11:47 AMReply

    Hwood cast a Mexican in that role? Don't see it happening. It would make sense on first glance, as Latinos are now the largest minority, but the world still sees Black and White. NOT looking forward to this remake. So, do you think we will see THE INTOUCHABLES at the Academy Awards next year, nominated for best foreign film?

Follow Shadow and Act

Email Updates

Most "Liked"

  • Taraji P. Henson Drama 'From The Rough' ...
  • Electro (Jamie Foxx) Faces Off Against ...
  • Watch Omar Sy In Action As Bishop In ...
  • Black Movie Trivia - Congrats to our ...
  • Interview: Chatting with RZA About Paul ...
  • Sidney Poitier Made Oscar History Today ...
  • Critically-Acclaimed Doc 'The Trials ...
  • GLAAD Awards Honors Jennifer Lopez-Produced ...
  • A Look At Seattle International Film ...
  • Hard Times - Making It, Vol. 1 - Entry ...