The French filmmaking team Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano barely reached the "Driving Miss Daisy" level of racial enlightenment in their previous film, "The Intouchables" (2011). They do better in "Samba," focusing on victims of xenophobia rather than racism. But erratic tonal shifts and gender stereotyping trip them up
Wisely, they bring from "The Intouchables" the charismatic Omar Sy, pairing him with the great Charlotte Gainsbourg. They make a more pleasing couple than Sy playing the valet of François Cluzet's grumpy, rich quadriplegic in the previous film.
Less pleasing is the vaguely derogatory title — one letter shy of a racist expletive. It's the name of an undocumented Senegalese immigrant, played by Sy with dogged grace. Ironically, Samba can't dance, but he has to keep on his toes to avoid being picked up by the immigration authorities and deported. He's been toiling for 10 years in Paris as a kitchen drudge while aspiring to become a chef, but one false step — by him or by the bureaucracy that rules his fate — and it might all be for nothing.
Meanwhile, Alice (Gainsbourg), on sabbatical from her job after a breakdown, has inexplicably decided to decompress by volunteering to help out non-documented unfortunates like Samba. She takes on his case; and their exchanges simmer, with Samba flirtatious and perhaps manipulative, and Alice shy, awkward, and ready to fall to pieces.
They make a good match, in a dramatic and perhaps even screwball comedic way. Unfortunately, the material flounders from the broadly farcical to the bombastically melodramatic. Race and ethnicity aren't so much the problem as gender is. Despite Gainsbourg's efforts, her character becomes a caricature.
It's not enough for just one bottle of pills to demonstrate Alice's neurosis, but a whole dispensary has to fall out of her purse. Establishing her social awkwardness takes a long, unfunny montage of her floundering with foreigners. Samba might be undocumented, but in this film women are the real aliens.
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Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.