Writer-directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano hit a sweet spot with 2011’s near-half-billion-dollar global hit “The Intouchables,” starring Omar Sy as a white zillionaire quadriplegic’s black Algerian caregiver, pal, and life-restorer. So the filmmakers made another movie with a message: “Don’t worry, bourgeois! French minorities aren’t banlieue-burning banshees — we’re all best friends around here, let’s dance!” The Telegraph’s Mike McCahill usefully calls Nakache and Toledano the “diet Dardennes.”
Social problems go down sweet and easy as a soothing low-calorie smoothie in “Samba,” their glossy new socially-conscious romantic comedy. This time, the masters of the low-cal rom-com make Sy a noble illegal immigrant named Samba, who aspires to be a Paris chef but is about to get deported. Charlotte Gainsbourg plays an alpha-female businesswoman who’s had a nervous breakdown and now volunteers at the immigration center.
Cesar Award-winning Sy extends his reach as an actor and confirms his rising star power, and “Samba” is highly watchable mostly because of him, plus vivid turns by supporting players, especially his bubbly prole sidekick (Tahar Rahim of “The Prophet” in fun clown mode). No question, the film gives an entertaining and privileged glimpse into the immigrant’s world, starting with nimble DP Stephane Fontaine’s opening-scene pastiche of the “Goodfellas” tracking shot through a restaurant. (Here, it leads from the glittery rich diners to Samba’s plate-scrapers in the kitchen.)
“Samba’s” large problem is the shocking incompetence of his love interest, played by Gainsbourg. For the first time ever, I simply didn’t buy her character, an alleged pill-popping mouseburger yearning for romance. When she gets angry or hears reggae, she goes nuts — that is, she becomes Charlotte Gainsbourg. Samba can’t dance the samba, but the shy white girl has mad rhythm. I buy her when she’s nuts or peeved, but not when she’s mousy. When they kiss, it’s as innocent as the kids in the Boy Scout tent in “Moonrise Kingdom,” only less convincing.
The writing is at fault, too. You can see plot points coming at you like a sluggish supertanker, most scenes are too long, and the movie should lose at least 20 minutes. A subplot about Samba promising to track down a fellow immigrant’s lost love, only to bed her instead, feels horribly tacked on. Instead of feeling sorry for the bitter cuckold or troubled by Samba’s betrayal, we just want the superfluous fool to go away and let us get back to sipping our Diet Dardennes smoothie.
Most elements of “Samba” sound mockable, and are. Yet it does have oodles of charm, plus a cast of characters that feels like an impromptu family circle; Sy’s sympathetic, emotionally legible face wins you over, even when he’s screwing over a dear friend, and everyone should see every Tahar Rahim film. (Not even Gainsbourg’s bellyflop failure can break this movie’s delicate spell.) You find yourself wanting to stick around and wait for that supertanker to arrive.
There’s a pastiche of a socially-conscious Coke commercial, and the whole movie is like a very good TV spot hawking liberté, égalité, fraternité. The editing errs on the side of longueurs, but likable people and the mise-en-scène draw you in. Somehow, even the artificiality feels heartwarming.