Though never known for their subtlety, French co-helmers/scripters Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache have never delivered a film as offensive as “Untouchable,” which flings about the kind of Uncle Tom racism one hopes has permanently exited American screens. The Weinstein Co., which has bought remake rights, will need to commission a massive rewrite to make palatable this cringe-worthy comedy about a rich, white quadriplegic hiring a black man from the projects to be his caretaker, exposing him to “culture” while learning to loosen up. Sadly, this claptrap will do boffo Euro biz.
“Untouchable” proudly states it’s based on a true story, though tellingly, the caretaker in real life is Arab, not black. Fabulously wealthy Philippe (Francois Cluzet) was in a paragliding accident some years earlier and can’t move from the neck down. His wife has died; his adopted daughter, Elisa (Alba Gaia Bellugi), is a snot-nosed teen; and his staff keeps him coddled in an upper-class cocoon.
But Philippe goes through caretakers like water. Applying for the new opening is Driss (Omar Sy), a guy just out of the slammer after a six-month stint for robbery; he only turns up because he needs a signature on the rejection slip to make him eligible for unemployment benefits. To the surprise of personal secretary Magalie (Audrey Fleurot), Philippe hires the lanky, unflappable Driss, knowing he’ll be entertained if nothing else.
Driss’ infectious bonhomie makes him indispensable to Philippe, encouraging him in romance and generally blowing fresh air into the stolid household with his crude but warmhearted manners. The helmers, as usual (“Those Happy Days,” “So Happy Together … “) stock up on plenty of gags, taking hoary potshots at modern art, opera and “high” culture (think “Trading Places,” but less subtle) via the very tired idea that a black man from the wrong side of town could only ridicule such things.
In fact, 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. It’s painful to see Sy, a joyfully charismatic performer, in a role barely removed from the jolly house slave of yore, entertaining the master while embodying all the usual stereotypes about class and race.
The nadir comes when Driss dons a suit and Magalie tells him he looks like President Obama, as if the only black man in a suit could be the president; what’s so distressing is that the writers mean for the line to be tender and funny. (For the record, Sy and Obama look nothing alike.)
It’s all supposed to induce laughs, and since Sy is such a winning actor and the jokes rarely let up, “Untouchable” may seduce unthinking auds with an infectious breeziness. Incidental music shamelessly plays on emotions, while sampled songs provide atmosphere; the famously prickly Nina Simone, whose “Feeling Good” is included, would not be pleased.