'Marseille': Film Review

Marseilles still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Eskwad/Pathe Distribution
A sweet and sappy paean to France’s southern capital.

Kad Merad ('Welcome to the Sticks') co-wrote and stars in his second directorial outing.

A love letter to that most adored and maligned of French cities, comic star Kad Merad’s Marseille is a warm if highly sentimental family dramedy best served with a bowl of olives and a jumbo-sized pitcher of Pastis.

Dishing out a few decent gags and plenty of Southern comfort, it’s also an underwritten affair that never really goes far beyond concept level — a sort of lightweight, reverse-take on Gallic box-office smash Welcome to the Sticks, which pushed Merad into the spotlight back in 2008. Local turnout has been strong if not spectacular, while the feel-good vibes could charm viewers in Western Europe, just as long as they don't confuse this film with the upcoming Netflix series of the same title.

This is Merad’s second stab at the helm after co-directing, along with regular collaborator Olivier Baroux (Safari), the police spoof sequel F.B.I. Frog Butthead Investigators (Mais qui a re-tue Pamela Rose?). (If you think the English-language title is bad, note that Merad plays characters in the movie with names like Richard Bullit and Holk Logan.)  

Working from a screenplay co-written with fellow leads Patrick Bosso and Judith El Zein, he shifts gears from the cartoonish scenarios of the Baroux movies to a much more airy and character-driven story here, dipping into some of the humor that turned Dany Boon’s Sticks into the highest-grossing French film of all time on home turf.

Merad plays Paolo, a born-and-bred Marseillais who’s been exiled to Quebec for 25 years and returns to his native city when his elderly father, Giovanni (Venantino Venantini), has an accident that leaves him with severe amnesia.

Shacking up with his brother, Joseph (Bosso), a shipbuilder with an accent you can “cut with a knife,” as the French say, Paolo tries to help his dad get better while rediscovering the pleasures and pitfalls of a city he spent much of his adult life running away from.

The director lands some good jokes early on as we see Paolo confronted by a place where people have plenty of panache and a laidback philosophy that’s as far removed from hoity-toity Paris as New Orleans is from Boston or New York. (One highlight has Paolo sitting in the back of a cab as the driver leisurely discusses the plot of Gravity with a friend, referring to George Clooney as “the guy with the Nespresso capsules.”)

For sure, the film traffics in clichés and doesn’t always transcend them, while the third act ties things up without much credibility, even for this sort of easygoing material. This is especially true of the rom-com subplot between Paolo and local doctor Elena (El Zein), which is handled via quid pro quos and other shallow screenwriting tactics.

But as a paean to a city best known onscreen through the work of Marcel Pagnol and Robert Guediguian — or for being the hellhole Gene Hackman ventures into in French Connection IIMarseille offers up an affectionate portrait that’s far from picture-perfect, showing how workers are still exploited and the northern suburbs remain a dangerous place to visit. With the character of Giovanni, Merad also reveals how Marseilles has always been a bastion for immigration — first for the Italian and Spanish, then for North Africans, all of whom have had a major influence on local culture.

Performances are fine and thankfully never get too hammy, with Merad restraining himself from some of the over-the-top high jinks of his other comedies. The production package is solid and makes strong use of all the colorful locales, while music choices range from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Up Around the Bend” to Franco-Algerian — and Marseillais — rapper L’Algerino’s 2010 hit single, “Sur la tete de ma mere.”

Production companies: Eskwad, LGM Cinema, Pathe, Janine Films, TF1 Films Production
Cast: Kad Merad, Patrick Bosso, Venantino Venantini, Judith El Zein
Director: Kad Merad
Screenwriters: Kad Merad, Patrick Bosso, Judith El Zein
Producers: Richard Grandpierre, Cyril Colbeau-Justin, Jean-Baptiste Dupont
Executive producer: Frederic Doniguian
Director of photography: Gordon Spooner
Production designer: Isabelle Delbecq
Costume designer: Charlotte Betaillole
Editor: Marie Silvi
Composer: Herve Rakotofiringa
Sales: Pathe International

In French
Not rated, 98 minutes