"Intouchables," "Hysteria" give off pleasant, safe vibrations
I doubt anyone would be flabbergasted if I said that independent cinema has grown wildly in popularity. The fact that auteur Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom" can not only be released in the middle of the summer blockbuster season but be the most buzzed movie of the weekend should be adequate proof.
It's become the place to see new, unique stories and feel emotions normally screen-tested out of most mainstream films. It was the place where writers and directors could take risks, where Tarantino could write fresh dialogue unheard of before or where Nolan could tell a story backward.
"The Intouchables" and "Hysteria," currently playing at the Downer and Oriental Theatre respectively, do not showcase any risk. There's very little in either film to challenge viewers or inspire debate. They are about as edgy as a marshmallow and contain just about the same amount of substance. But, like a marshmallow, they're both enjoyable as light, fluffy filler between more challenging cinematic dishes.
Based on a true story, "The Intouchables" (which, minus the definite article and translated into French, means "untouchable") follows the unlikely friendship between Driss and Philippe. Philippe (Francois Cluzet) lives a life of extravagant wealth, but a paragliding accident has left him without any feeling below his neck. He needs a caretaker, which is where Driss (Omar Sy), an inner-city ex-con, comes in.
The rest of the wildly popular French film's plot will not come as a surprise to anyone. The two struggle to bond at first, especially Driss, who mainly views the job as a paid holiday. As the film goes on, however, the improbable pair grows to respect one another and maybe even teach one another a few life lessons.
It's all predictably crowd-pleasing, especially the movie's continual amusement with the lifestyles of the rich and famous which comes off as pandering to recession-weary audiences. Thankfully, the movie never tugs on the audience's heartstrings too hard. The characters' sardonic attitudes never allow the film and some its more saccharine scenes, including an impromptu paragliding trip, to become cavity-inducingly sweet.
Much of "The Intouchables"' unlikely success also belongs to Sy and Cluzet. The former's youthful energy and the latter's quiet grace play off one another with a natural dynamic. The two seem to actually enjoy being with one another and participating in their lives, something missing from similar feel-good dramas, like 2009's "The Blind Side," which pushed half of its duo to the sideline.
The film's ending and trite messages (love life, carpe diem, YOLO, etc.) could have inspired groans, but the talented cast works hard to make the final moments genuine. Thankfully for "The Intouchables," they succeed.
"Hysteria" certainly has a more touchy subject matter – the invention of the vibrator – but like "The Intouchables," the film is in full people-pleasing mode, for better or worse. For a movie based on the world's most popular sex toy, "Hysteria" is surprisingly coy about the topic of sex, making it seem almost as immature as the sniveling doctors the movie wants the audience to hate.
Yet somehow, just like the French friendship drama, "Hysteria" manages to work despite its safe, comfortable take on the subject matter. The performances are a large contributor; Hugh Dancy is affably noble as Mortimer Granville, a Victorian-era doctor whose belief in edgy groundbreaking science, like germs and hygiene, makes him a pariah in the London medical scene.
The MVPs, however, are Maggie Gyllenhaal and Jonathan Pryce, making the most out of roles that could have sunk the film. Gyllenhaal plays Charlotte Dalrymple, a vibrant feminist service worker whose cares for the poor despite her rich upbringing. She's less of a person than a collection of positive modern ideals the audience is meant to agree with, but Gyllenhaal has a spunky sincerity that rings true even when the character doesn't. On the complete other hand, Pryce plays her villainous dad who, as a wealthy doctor, hates change and helping the poor. It's a cartoonish role, but Pryce's kind face and emotion-filled eyes bring it some much-needed humanity.
"Hysteria" does attempt to be a bit smarter than just a movie about the first vibrator. The title disease turned out not to be a disease, but a catch-all for women's behavior that male doctors couldn't explain. The women seem to enjoy the cure – a "pelvic massage" meant to cause a "hysterical paroxysm," a fancy word for orgasm – while the snooty male physicians don't seem to understand what they're actually doing to their patients.
It's a humorous look at the disconnect between men's understanding of women and women themselves. It's nice to think society has matured over time, but the recent controversy in Michigan over the use of the medically accurate word "vagina" shows that "Hysteria" might be timelier than it could have ever imagined.
Neither film shows the daring spirit and breathless creativity that independent cinema can represent at its best. But consider "Hysteria" and "The Intouchables" the indie movie scene's rendition of mindless, entertaining summer fun.
"The Intouchables": ***
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