The star and crew may be the same, and the subject matter equally worthy, but lightning does not exactly strike twice in Samba, Olivier Nakache’s and Eric Toledano’s follow-up to their 2011 smash hit Intouchables, which grossed a whopping $425 million worldwide and remains one of the most successful French films in history.
Once again teaming up with Omar Sy, who winningly portrays an illegal alien trying to stay in France at all costs, this social dramedy-cum-romantic comedy starts off promisingly before losing its rhythm midway through. And although there are amusing set pieces that cleverly underline the strife of Paris’ immigrant community, the chemistry between Sy and co-star Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays Samba’s neurotic love interest, is never quite there, while the film’s message is lost amid too many plot contrivances. Already pre-sold to most territories and set for release in France mid-October, this polished outing should see strong global returns for Gaumont, though they won’t climb to the heights reached last time.
Part of what made Intouchables such a hit was the prickly relationship at its core, with Francois Cluzet starring opposite Sy as a paraplegic in need of a helping hand, not to mention a few good laughs. Such a bond is more or less absent from Samba, which substitutes the Cluzet character for a depressive Parisian, Alice (Gainsbourg), who falls in love with Samba (Sy) when they first meet at a detainment center in Charles de Gaulle airport. But despite a twisting narrative that will eventually bring the two together, their pairing doesn’t click the way it should, while Alice never feels like a full-fledged character.
Such flaws are only truly felt after the halfway point, when the love story begins to take center stage over all the comic-charged realism. Up until then, Nakache and Toledano (who adapted their script from Delphine Coulin’s novel) deliver an impressively lucid, and often hilarious, indictment of France’s two-tiered social system, where illegals work low-wage jobs as they remain on the run from the authorities, while those with papers lead a more privileged existence. Such a dichotomy is evident from the film’s Goodfellas-style opening shot, which begins with a showstopping wedding celebration before tracking back to the kitchen, where Samba sweats his butt off washing dishes.
Soon enough, he’s arrested and about to be deported when Alice, who’s volunteering free immigration services after suffering a nervous breakdown, swoops in with a co-counselor (Izia Higelin) to try and help. These early sequences, which reveal the Kafkaesque bureaucratic hoops that people like Samba need to leap through, are also filled with intelligent stabs of humor, including a scene involving multiple translations that shows how well the directing duo can stage and time a good gag.
Yet the precision of the movie’s early reels soon gives way to lots of fluff, whether it’s the various she-loves-me/he-loves-me-not tribulations of the romance, the friendship Samba develops with a fellow alien (Tahar Rahim) that provides only a few broad laughs, or the subplot involving another African refugee that feels like a pure screenwriting device. Even the rhythm seems off in these latter sections, the scenes running on for too long and the filmmakers relying on a busy hit soundtrack, backed by Ludovico Einaudi’s busy and gushy score, to channel emotions on screen.
The result is something of a “tweener”: neither funny enough as an outright comedy nor solid enough as a drama, and certainly not believable as an affaire de coeur. But what’s really lost amid the commotion is the immigrant experience that the directors so clearly portrayed at the outset. Instead of trying to be authentic, the late sequences are marked by foot chases out of the Keystone Cops, and Samba ultimately spills into default movie mode rather than saying anything significant about its subject matter.
Luckily, the talented Sy is there to carry much of the story’s weight, toning down his usual shenanigans (which he picked up as a TV sketch comic) while feigning a decent Senegalese accent, and making Samba someone you want to root for despite a rather muddled set of intentions. The same can’t necessarily be said for Alice, who Gainsbourg tries her best to render palpable, but who’s an underwritten and often humorless role, even if the team tacks on one good joke for her at the very end.
Like in Intouchables, the tech package is pro on all fronts, with DP Stephane Fontaine (A Prophet) acutely capturing the grim Paris underworld that Samba calls home, at least for the time being.
Production companies: Quad Films, Ten Films, Gaumont
Cast: Omar Sy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Tahar Rahim, Izia Higelin
Directors: Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano
Screenwriters: Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano, based on the book “Samba pour la France” by Delphine Coulin
Producers: Yann Zenou, Laurent Zeitoun, Nicolas Duval-Adassovsky
Director of photography: Stephane Fontaine
Production designer: Nicolas de Boiscuille
Costume designer: Isabelle Pannetier
Editor: Dorian Rigal-Ansous
Composer: Ludovico Einaudi
No rating, 115 minutes