By that time, the Weinstein Company had already snapped up the film's American distribution and its English-language remake rights. But in the run-up to the March 1 U.S. premier of the film at a French film festival in New York, Weinstein needed to overcome one potentially major obstacle: a stunningly vicious Variety magazine critique from last September that threatens to shape the thinking of other American reviewers as they head to press screenings ahead of the film's May 25 theatrical release in the United States.
The trade magazine's reviewer, Jay Weissberg, lambasted The Intouchables as a movie that "flings about the kind of Uncle Tom racism one hopes has permanently exited American screens." Weissberg called the film "offensive," and he wrote that Sy is "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."
Twisting the dagger, Weissberg added that Sy's charisma is squandered on "a role barely removed from the jolly house slave of yore, entertaining the master while embodying all the usual stereotypes about class and race."
They say there's no such thing as bad publicity, but Weinstein is savvy enough to know that bringing over a French comedy that might be perceived as racist won't fly in America. Weinstein could have simply attacked the critic, but that might have looked petty. So Weinstein initiated a contretemps strategy: He attacked Le Pen -- something that wouldn't have been possible if the old Frenchman hadn't already lodged himself into debate over the film.
It is, in many ways, difficult to imagine these two men -- the ultimate Hollywood battler and the French political beast -- in the same universe, much less taking part in the same debate. Weinstein dines at snazzy restaurants where attractive wannabe-actor waiters cater to his every whim; Le Pen used to wear an eye patch and has been the target of multiple assassination attempts.
But perhaps it was inevitable. After all, Weinstein has been involved in the U.S. release of around 30 French films, including Amélie, the triptych Bleu, Blanc, Rouge, and Delicatessen. Le Pen's role in French society is akin to that of Rush Limbaugh in the United States. The Frenchman may have been an active politician for more than 40 years, but he has never aspired to hold a share of real power (unlike his daughter Marine), instead preferring to push the national political debate further and further to the right -- particularly when it comes to immigration and the dilution of white, Christian, French culture. And like Limbaugh, Jean-Marie Le Pen has rarely encountered a sensitive hot topic that he wouldn't use to try to enlarge the reach of his megaphone.
In a televised Jan. 29 interview on France 3, Le Pen offered a critique of The Intouchables that was nearly as caustic as that in Variety, but for a different reason. "France is like this cripple stuck in this wheelchair, and we are going to have to wait for the help of these [ghetto] youngsters and from immigration in general," Le Pen said. "I don't subscribe at all to this way of seeing things."