There are scores of film actors working today in what the U.S. smugly refers to as “Foreign Language Films” who are deserving of stardom on the international stage, and Omar Sy might be at the top of that list. The French actor began his career in 2000 with a string of appearances and voice roles in television and short films, and he gained notoriety in France in 2010 as half of a comedy sketch duo in a series called SAV des émissions. His true breakout was Intouchables (2011), a hilarious and poignant dramedy about an unlikely friendship between an ex-con and a quadriplegic millionaire. Sy is transcendent in this film, absolutely bursting with life and energy, and his efforts were rewarded when he became the first Black man to win a César Award. International fame, it seemed, should follow, and indeed over the next few years Sy made his English-language debuts in the X-Men, Jurassic and Transformers franchises.
None of those roles exactly called for an actor of Sy’s talents, though; I’m not even sure he had any lines as the mutant Bishop in X-Men: Days of Future Past. His appearances in these massively-recognizable franchises, frankly, are forgettable, which plays out as a near-impossibility after seeing how utterly unforgettable Sy is in the likes of Intouchables. This is not to say that becoming a household name in America is tantamount to having a successful acting career, nor that Sy should at all be faulted for appearing in these big-budget blockbusters. Predictably, though, Hollywood is a beneficiary of his Intouchables work in a way that excludes the actor entirely: the film was remade as The Upside in 2017, starring Kevin Hart in Sy’s role, a hollow retread of the original that went on to gross $122 million.
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Right before Jurassic World started my seatmate turned to me and inquired after my favorite dinosaur. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I hadn’t thought about what my favorite dinosaur was for a solid few years, that despite my boyish charms I actually wasn’t in third grade. I shrugged and said Tyrannosaurus. Good ol’ T. Rex is what would pop into my head if you approached me and said “dinosaur”, so maybe that kind of bias does qualify the stub-armed carnivore as a darling dino of mine. Seatmate agreed.
The more I weighed this pressing question the more I believed answering it to be a requisite for instant peace of mind. I was, I remembered, quick to raise an eyebrow when that Spinosaurus took down a T. Rex in Jurassic Park III — can they do that? This is T. Rex, Ancient King of the World, and he gets taken out by Dinosauria threequelae? And in the sequel The Lost World, which features a Tyrannosaurus loose on the mainland in the climax, we should really be honest about who we’re rooting for in that scenario. Though it traded the color and wonder of the first film for a considerably darker tone and palette, The Lost World succeeded in taking the bull of the first film and finding a more expensive china shop.
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Netflix has beefed up their foreign language film offerings lately, adding within the past few months a new cache of hundreds of popular films from around the globe. One such movie is The Intouchables (no, not the French re-make of The Untouchables starring a French Kevin Costner) a 2011 French film directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano. In fact, by sheer numbers The Intouchables is the Mona Lisa of foreign language films, grossing $281 million worldwide, more than any other non-English movie in history.
The movie’s worldwide success raises the question: how did this film about the true story of wealthy quadriplegic Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his underqualified, rough around the edges, ex-con caretaker Abdel Sellou shine above the rest? For starters, the original story itself is fascinating. An old wealthy man taking a chance on a young criminal as the man responsible for his own wellbeing is intriguing, but, in most cases, would seem too far-fetched. In the case of The Intouchables, the story is practically completely true, even when it seems overblown.
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