Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano: Samba (2014)

Feel-good honesty makes a tough combo

Nakache and Toledano's The Intouchables/Les Intouchables was an extremely popular French film in which Omar Sy, an actor of impressive dimensions with a radiant smile and inexhaustible charisma, played a marginalized African in France who becomes the indispensable caregiver of a rich white handicapped man played by mainstream favorite actor François Cluzet. The filmmakers are back with Omar Sy again, minus Cluzot, in a film about a cross-cultural romance that confronts the dilemmas of the displaced and illegal more directly and realistically, without abandoning comedy, by loosely adapting Delphine Coulin's novel Samba pour la France. This injection of honesty into the feel-good is, all in all, an admirable effort, especially considering that the trio of Nakache, Toledano, and their magnetic star Omar Sy could have done anything they wanted and got generous funding. And it does depict sympathetically, for the mainstream palate, many of the dilemmas faced by immigrants. But structurally and tonally the film seems in some ways flawed, partly due to the popular costars brought in.

Samba is an ambitious film that wants to deliver something more serious than Intouchables. But though Sy rises above his earlier role of medicine-clown, the filmmakers don't avoid fairy tale solutions that have a selfish, cynical cast to them. And things take a curiously downbeat turn along the way, largely due to a painfully awkward romance, ostensibly the movie's narrative arc's focus, between Sy's character and that of Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays a depressed immigration caseworker. This is offset by inclusion of the appealing Tahar Rahim as Sy's sidekick in the film, though Rahim's efforts at broad comedy seem strained.

The key change in the new movie is that Sy's character, Samba Cissé from Senegal, is clearly no longer a buffoon. He is a man with a dream -- to become a chef -- who works close to it, as a food preparer up from pot washer in a restaurant, and with enough determination and ingenuity to have successfully lived off the books in France for a decade. Sy is more than able to take on the more rounded role, and it's only a pity he weas not given a still more serious one. The chief miscalculation is the against-type casting of French icon Charlotte Gainsbourg as the mousy, psychologically damaged caseworker who meets up with Samba after he's been picked up by immigration authorities.

French people, and western Europeans in general, don't want to let in any more political refugees or impoverished people from Africa, the Middle East, or Eastern Europe. But they are still coming. This movie asks mainstream locals to look sympathetically at what these people go through. As their stand-in, Alice (Gainsbourg), a newcomer at immigration after a burnout at a corporate hiring job, does not have the "distance" her tougher colleague Manu (Izia Igelin) advises, so she starts falling for Samba right off; and we're supposed to too. But the point of view is more often with Samba and his many misadventures. Classified as asked to leave the country, he must now scramble to earn money and travel around town undetected.

Omar Sy plays off and is a springboard for other actors; hence the magic worked between him and Cluzot in the previous movie. Here he has two males, meeting a fun-loving young Brazilian called Wilson (Rahim) and living with his severe uncle Lamouna (Youngar Fall). Actually Wilson is Walid, an Algerian; being Brazilian is something he's found plays better, especially with the ladies, or so he thinks. A big set piece shows "Wilson" dancing enticingly for women office workers outside a glass skyscraper window while Samba is terrified at the height. Like an office party, this is an example of the filmmaker's excruciating, overwrought idea of "fun"; but Sy and Rahim are such engaging actors they very nearly carry it all off. The many chases and scrapes depicted hold the attention -- until the movie's episodic two hours finally begin to drag.

Matching Gainsbourg with Sy may be box office logic, but it poses a problem in the working out of the plot. Alice seems so drab and damaged, and Samba seems so hesitant most of the way to show a real interest in her, that the romance feels stillborn. Samba has slept with a fellow immigrant's attractive girlfriend he was charged with locating. Wouldn't he sleep with any available female? Incidentally, there isn't much effort in the story to present Samba as ethical in his behavior. We can understand Uncle Lamouna's frequent disapproval. But this is intentional, like all the rest: Samba's desperate ruses and identity changes underline the extreme measures required to survive illegal status even under France's relatively humane system.

The movie itself begins to seem like it's changing identity cards from scene to scene as it alternates between Samba's adventures and his vague romance with Alice, with moments of comedy that, while they may be intended to avoid allowing things to seem too grim, are not relevant to either strain. Eventually, we have seen quite a lot of the things that can happen to an illegal immigrant struggling to find a footing, and every scene with Sy in it is engaging. But the effect has been diluted by the helter-skelter focus.

Samba, 118 mins., debuted at Toronto 7 Sept 2014; French theatrical release 15 October 2014; it did well, with an AlloCiné press rating of 3.6 due to many positive mainstream reviews. UK 1 May; limited US release 24 July. Not so well received here: Metacritic rating 53%.