|The Outrageous Sophie Tucker
Two selections from the arthouse make it five consecutive 2.5-star ratings this weekend:
Omar Sy of the well-liked (though not by me) French import "The Intouchables" has been given a vehicle for his genial brand of situational comedy in the filmmakers' new picture, "Samba." He's Samba Cissé, an undocumented Senegalese refugee working as a dishwasher in Paris with the hope of becoming a chef. Samba's managed to stay under the authorities' radar for ten years before a random incident turns into a police chase that earns him an order to leave French territory. He lands at a legal aid center for immigrants, where Manu (Izïa Higelin), his young but jaded advocate, assigns the job of information gathering to Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), an intern warily easing back into the workforce after suffering a nervous breakdown (what she calls a "burn-out") at her corporate job.
The deportation storyline recedes for most of the runtime, and a few times I sat up with the thought, "There is absolutely nothing dramatically at stake right now." But as with another of the weekend's movies, "Paper Towns," the lack of conflict allows for a surprisingly enjoyable hour in the company of smart and engaging friends. Gainsbourg's always tightly coiled; here, she's perpetually in peril of coming apart, and it charges the nomadic "Samba" with needed danger. Sy's an affable and easygoing presence. Alice and Manu share witty exchanges about the need to maintain distance, which the latter gleefully abandons for an affair with Samba's Brazilian buddy Wilson (Tahar Rahim of "A Prophet"). There's a hilarious extended toast among the women who staff the aid center, and a cutaway shot that may be the funniest moment of the year in film.
The portrait that emerges from Lloyd and Susan Ecker's documentary "The Outrageous Sophie Tucker" is of a marketing genius, a master of self-promotion who could school today's top branders. Tucker kept the names and addresses of everyone she met, from seven U.S. presidents to flower delivery boys, from Al Capone to J. Edgar Hoover, and sent them personalized letters in advance of her upcoming shows. She redefined the concept of the celebrity endorsement, was the first to take out full-page newspaper ads thanking her fans, and sold copies of her autobiography after every show, strong-arming admirers into buying extra copies and refusing to make change: "It's for Israel!" The documentary is, like Tucker, sassy and full of stories, delightfully non-deferential, if a bit too breezy and formless. And Sophie's a force of nature. Not recommending her movie would be, as Jan Van Cleeff called the penalty double in Creole bridge, "impolite."