2014, R, 118 min. Directed by Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano. Starring Omar Sy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Tahar Rahim, Izia Higelin, Isaka Sawadogo.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Aug. 7, 2015
French filmmakers Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano scored an international hit with their fourth feature, 2011’s The Intouchables. Its story of the friendship between a wealthy quadriplegic and his French-Algerian caregiver was equally lauded and derided, but that didn’t stop it from unseating 2001’s beloved Amélie to become the most internationally successful French-language film of all time. It also introduced the world to Omar Sy, an extremely talented actor with a dazzling smile and an endless well of charisma. So what’s next for the two directors and their muse? More of the same bourgeois pablum, it seems, with far more diminishing returns.
Sy plays Samba, the Senegalese title character who has been living illegally in Paris for the last 10 years. Due to his status, he has been toiling away as a dishwasher, getting paid off the books, and living in a tiny apartment with his disapproving uncle. Samba sends his earnings back to his family in Africa, and is slowly trying to realize his dream of becoming a chef when he gets detained. Enter Alice (Gainsbourg), a depressed businesswoman who has begun helping her law student friend Manu (Higelin) give legal counsel to undocumented immigrants. Samba and Alice meet cute (as much as that’s possible in a detention center), but their efforts before the judge are unsuccessful, and Samba must return to Senegal on his own accord. Instead, he goes further off the grid, befriending comic-relief cliche Wilson (Rahim), and trying to eke out a living while avoiding the attention of authorities. Samba’s and Alice’s paths cross a bit too often, and an unlikely romance begins to form.
There are some interesting insights into France’s immigration problems in Samba, its bureaucracy and racism, and the struggles of the undocumented that have an undeniably universal appeal. It’s a shame that those acuities are repeatedly marred by a glib and overstuffed plot that oscillates wildly in tone. The filmmakers mix touching social realism, feel-good romantic comedy, and working-class farce into a patronizing ragout of flavors that never successfully blend together. Sy works the material the best he can, but the usually reliable Gainsbourg sleepwalks through her role in a film that seems to want to end a half a dozen times before it actually does (and the less said about the ending, the better). In its inclusive attempt to be all things to all people, Samba ends up inadvertently trivializing the topics it’s trying to stand up for.