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July 31, 2015

After such an incredible run with Intouchables, it seems natural that filmmakers Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano would head back to the same well for their followup. Again Omar Sy stars as another French immigrant, but where Driss was based on the real life Algerian Abdel Sellou, the Senegalese Samba Cissé was pulled from the pages of Delphine Coulin’s novel Samba pour la France. Unfortunately — and maybe ironically — Nakache and Toledano can’t quite touch their former greatness with Samba.

Which is not to say the story is without its charms. Samba is a big sweetheart who’s been living in France for ten years with his fully-documented uncle Lamouna (Youngar Fall). But it seems his application for residency was rejected — Samba claims he never received the letter — and he’s arrested when he tries to apply for a better position than his current under-the-table job as a dishwasher in a fancy hotel’s kitchen. He isn’t quite deported, but he leaves detention under an “OQTF”: which requires him to leave French territory. Of course he heads straight back to his uncle’s room.

At a social services association for immigrants, Samba meets Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who is volunteering while recovering from a slight nervous breakdown at her high-powered executive job. Against the advice of her mentor, Manu (Izïa Higelin), Alice gives Samba her number, and they begin to help each other get their lives back on track.

Through Samba, and also his Brazilian friend Wilson (Tahar Rahim), we get a glimpse of what a less-than-fully-documented immigrant has to go through to make ends meet. They scrape together whatever can pass for a work permit, and do any job that comes their way. If someone needs window washers, it doesn’t matter if Samba has a fear of heights. A position opens up sorting garbage? get used to the smell.

Through Alice, we get a smaller glimpse of what these people go through to get to France, and how impossible a task it is to get them the help they need. The association seems to have no translators on staff, so they end up going through other immigrants in the room who might happen to share a language. And when they do communicate, every one of them has their own story of poverty, violence, and misery.

But honest, it’s a comedy. Most turns are played for laughs — and there are plenty of them — which makes it all the more jarring when the filmmakers try to go darker for a scene or two. And when you’re talking about immigration, there’s a lot of darkness out there, as films like Dirty Pretty Things have shown us.

Coulin’s novel digs deep into that vein of human misery, but Nakache and Toledano can’t bring themselves to truly engage with that side of the immigrant experience. There’s no hint of, say, structural racism, or dishonest employers screwing over workers who can’t go to the authorities. All the trauma is back in those foreign places where mostly darker-skinned people live; certainly nobody is trafficking immigrants as actual slaves in the slums of Paris. The worst thing that happens around Samba, other than the fear of a raid by the police, is one guy sleeping with a woman another guy has a crush on.

And while it’s clear that Alice and Samba are supposed to be the new version of Philippe and Driss saving each other, it’s never very clear how Alice needs saving. Yes, she’s coming out of a bad place, but she’d go back to work even if she’d never met Samba. All she gets from him is a boost in confidence that could have come from anyone, while his entire life in France hangs on her intercessions. The duality that really brought Intouchables home never materializes here.

So Samba can’t quite deliver the insights into the French immigrant experience that it wants to, but it does at least serve well as a crowd-pleaser. If, like me, your biggest disappointment with Jurassic World was “not enough Omar Sy”, you’ve got plenty here. Rahim gets a chance at comedy for once and does a fairly good job of it. We even get to see Gainsbourg in a much lighter role than her usual fare with Lars von Trier. But as entertaining as Samba can be, that’s about all it can be.

Worth It: yes, as a pleasant diversion.
Bechdel Test: pass.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.

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