By Jordan Riefe
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Last year around this time of France's Cannes film festival, movie producer Harvey Weinstein pondered how to turn a silent black-and-white film, "The Artist," into Oscar gold. His answer was to charm the socks off audiences with a simple tale of old Hollywood romance.
This year, his Weinstein Co. has a different French movie on its hands with buddy comedy "The Intouchables," a box office smash around the world that opens in the United States on Friday with a race relations story that may not translate as easily for U.S. audiences.
Nevertheless, after winning the best film Oscar in February with "The Artist," Weinstein is heavily promoting its new French movie, "Intouchables," and even if it fails to set cash registers ringing at U.S. box offices, the company has a Plan B - an English-language version is in the works.
"We're happy to have ‘The Artist' and now to work on ‘The Intouchables," The Weinstein Co.'s David Glasser told Reuters. "Harvey has always been a lover of foreign film. And obviously this year, we have a lot of French films which are incredible."
Based on a true story, "The Intouchables" follows an inner city petty criminal, played by Omar Sy, who is hired to care for a quadriplegic aristocrat, portrayed by Francois Cluzet. While it's rough going at first, the two become fast friends and impact each other in unexpected ways.
After shattering box office records in its home country, "The Intouchables," has gone on to sell an astonishing $340 million in tickets worldwide with its odd couple comedy audiences can't seem to resist.
"How do you deal with a handicap? How do you deal with a black character? All those things need to be addressed," Sy told Reuters. "That's the great challenge and the great opportunity, actually, to work with clichés and not fall into traps."
BLACK AND WHITE IN THE USA
Racially-tinged buddy comedies have worked well at U.S. box offices in the past. Examples include "48 Hrs." with Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte and more recently "Men in Black" with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. "Men in Black III" is expected to be a big hit this weekend when it opens.
Co-director Eric Toledan said he wrote "Intouchables" with an American audience in mind.
Yet ahead of its U.S. debut, the movie's racial characterizations have raised eyebrows among critics, which he hadn't expected.
Showbusiness newspaper The Hollywood Reporter said the characters are "perilously close to caricature at certain junctures" and Daily Variety was less diplomatic, saying the movie "flings about the kind of Uncle Tom racism one hopes has permanently exited American screens."
"Almost 20 million people have seen it and no one saw that," countered Toledan. "I think it's a big misunderstanding. I think the journalist who said that it was racist didn't understand the context of our movie."
Glasser called the type of criticism in the two trade newspapers a challenge to overcome in reaching U.S. audiences, and noted that all movies face some promotional hurdles.
"We obviously hope all the critics are there, but (audiences) come out of this movie really hot in the sense of wanting to talk about it. So that's what I think is going to sell it," Glasser said.
Weinstein is no stranger to controversy, of course, and any good movie marketer knows a little publicity goes a long way in luring people to theaters. Earlier this year, Weinstein Co. demonstrated that rule when it's documentary "Bully" earned a restrictive U.S. film rating that was eventually overturned.
The debate over the rating made headlines and helped push the documentary's U.S. ticket sales to more than $3.2 million - a healthy theatrical box office for a non-fiction film.
But even if "Intouchables" doesn't take off the way Weinstein Co. hopes, it already is hard at work on an English-language remake.
"It's based on a true story so you're going to stick true to form on a lot of the facts," said Glasser, adding that the company won't try to re-work the story of race relations.
Colin Firth is attached to play the Francois Cluzet role, and "Bridesmaids" director Paul Feig will helm it. The role of the black, petty criminal portrayed by Sy has yet to be cast.
"I'm very curious to see how they navigate that very delicate minefield which we had to in France," Sy said. "How will they adapt it to the American context? That's the big challenge."
When asked who he imagines in his role, he smiled broadly and said, "Meryl Streep. She has such amazing depth and range that she would be entirely capable of playing this."
(Reporting by Jordan Riefe, Editing By Bob Tourtellotte)