If there are two filmmakers that could have made anything they wanted this year, they’re French directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano. You see, they are the brains behind 2011s The Intouchables, one of the biggest break-out hits of the past ten years, an utterly rousing, uplifting, and hilarious delight. Made for around only US $10 million, it emerged out of nowhere to be one of the highest grossing films of all time, not to mention the top grossing film not in English, taking nearly $500 million worldwide. After that, they could have made a Terrence Malick inspired western set on Mars if they wanted to.
But instead of choosing to make a $200 million, effects-heavy intergalactic adventure a’la Jupiter Ascending, or whatever crazy passion project they had up their sleeves, they’ve made Samba, which is simply a bigger budgeted retreading of the same territory covered in The Intouchables with the net cast a bit wider to encompass more hard-hitting social issues. It proves to be too much, however, because even the charm of Omar Sy’s performance cannot stop this overstuffed film becoming weighed down by incorporating too many topics, feeling like three films squashed into one.
Playing much the same charismatic character as he did in The Intouchables, Sy’s titular character is an immigrant from Senegal who has lived in France for ten years, and is working under the table in a restaurant, washing dishes. To get the job he really wants as a chef, however, he needs a residence permit. After applying to get one, he was arrested, ending up in a detention centre outside Paris, stuck with men in similar situations that fled violence ridden countries, only to be stopped at the door to freedom.
It’s here he meets Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who is assigned to his case, new to the job after suffering a burn-out in a high-powered corporate position. After Samba is temporarily freed, doing a bunch of odd jobs to try stay in France, which lead to a wife variety of comedic situations; Alice gradually takes his case more and more personally, against the advice of her gregarious co-worker Manu (Izia Igelin).
It’s an immigration drama, a romance, and a reinvention film all in one, and none of them meld. The three way split results in a film that spreads itself way too thin over the narratives, convincing in none of them, while running much longer than is necessary. Gainsbourg is miscast in her role that’s very against, her waifish sensibilities translating to making the character flat and uninteresting. Combined with the lack of focus dedicated to developing Alice and Samba’s relationship, by the time the inevitable kiss comes, it’s almost a surprise. There are moments that offer faint glimmers of what the film could have been (oddly enough, they’re the same buddy comedy stylings that made The Intouchables so infectious, with Sy playing opposite a very good Tahar Ramin), but ultimately, Samba is a disappointing attempt to repeat past success, without the energy of the first outing.