'Samba' review: An underwhelming romance
"Samba" tries to be too many things to too many people, although you can't say it doesn't have heart. It's a twinned-out story of two outsiders at the crossroads -- one, the Senegalese migrant of the title (Omar Sy); the other, a troubled volunteer named Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who works at an immigrant advocacy center.
The film was written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, who brought Sy to international acclaim as the ex-con caretaker of "The Intouchables." Gainsbourg has a special place in many viewers' hearts for many reasons, including "Melancholia" and "Antichrist." But despite providing a splendid showcase for two deserving stars, "Samba" doesn't go anywhere with any resolve save toward the realm of feel-good romantic comedy. And even that destination isn't arrived at with any overwhelming sense of enthusiasm.
Samba is an undocumented alien, who has worked in a kitchen for 10 years, hoping to become a chef. When his efforts in that department attract the attention of the authorities, the threat of deportation suddenly looms. Faced with a return to Senegal, he turns for help to the immigration center where the neurotic Alice takes him under her wing. There are a number of painfully irrelevant scenes -- one that parodies an old Coke ad has gotten much attention -- and there's a ridiculously soapy subplot involving a fellow immigrant named Jonas (Isaka Sawadogo) who asks Samba to help find his lost fiancee. Jonas' purpose in the narrative eventually becomes clear, but for some time his chief quality is disposability.
The directors, as they showed in "The Intouchables," are all about easy emotional payoffs and uncomfortable resolutions to complex social issues. We'd all like to think such problems could be solved so easily. Nakache and Toledano are out to convince you they can.