On the evidence of their worldwide smash The Intouchables, as well as their latest comedy-drama Samba, writer-directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano specialize in well-intentioned, crowd-pleasing bullshit. The Intouchables was about a wealthy white quadriplegic learning to love life again with the assistance of his black Algerian caregiver. It was as problematic as that sounds, though of course the film’s idealized, shamelessly hopeful approach to complex issues of race and class appealed to audiences. We’d all like to believe entrenched socioeconomic problems can be overcome so easily. And why sort things out in reality when the movies can do it for us?
The more narratively sprawling Samba is working in a similar vein as The Intouchables, and ends up at about the same reductively offensive place. Nakache and Toledano’s frequent muse, the effortlessly charismatic Omar Sy, plays the title character, a Senegalese immigrant who’s been living illegally in Paris for a decade. (He also, contra his name, can’t dance. Har-de-har-har.) Samba’s attempts to become a professional chef get him noticed by the authorities and he’s ordered to leave France of his own accord as soon as possible. Fortunately, he meets the neurotic Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg, uncharacteristically awful), a volunteer worker at an immigration advocacy center who gets personally involved in his plight and learns to love herself more in the process.
If it weren’t for Sy’s charm and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine’s superb eye (the scenes set at the immigration detainee camp are especially evocative from a visual standpoint), Samba would be a total wash. This is a movie that thinks the deepest way to engage with the race and class issues it raises is by showing an enlightened white woman—one of Alice’s colleagues at the immigration center—quoting and then dancing to Bob Marley. It also continues The Intouchables’ irritating tendency to ping-pong between broad farce and treacly pathos. Samba’s best bud, Wilson (A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim), is the constant comic relief, an immigrant who loves the ladies and—in one of this egregious film’s many egregious scenes—imitates the 1990s Diet Coke commercial with the shirtless construction worker to several white collar ladies’ squealing delight.
And then there’s the ridiculously soapy subplot involving another immigrant, Jonas (Isaka Sawadogo), who tasks Samba with finding the fiancée he left behind after being detained two years earlier. At first, the Jonas scenes just seem disposable. But this ill-treated character eventually proves to be the key for Samba to remain in France, and the way the narrative thread resolves (with an astonishingly shrugged-off accidental death) is absolutely psychotic.