Amiable if overlong, “The Price of Fame,” the new film from festival circuit fixture Xavier Beauvois, whose last film “Of Gods and Men” won the Grand Prix in Cannes 2010, is a serviceable addition to the surprisingly well-defined subgenre of the graverobbing comedy. Based on the true story of an inept plot to steal Charlie Chaplin’s coffin and hold it for ransom, the film suffers from the same uneven tone that can often hound this sort of shaggy dog story, (see nearest cousin “Grand Theft Parsons”). Sustained irony is a difficult thing to master, and Beauvois’ storytelling is too linear to quite pull it off: instead of tragicomic layers, we get episodes that follow one after the other: sometimes comic, sometimes heartfelt, but only ever one thing at a time. And then there’s the soundtrack, which is so intrusively grandiose that it’s clearly trying to make a point, but it’s one that may be lost on those who don’t recognize oblique nods to classic Chaplin comedies. It all makes for a bumpy ride, though one not without its charms, particularly in yet another superb performance from great French-Moroccan actor Roschdy Zem.
Zem plays Osman, a struggling Algerian immigrant in Switzerland, father to a precocious daughter and husband to a hospitalized wife. Without her income, Osman’s job as a local council laborer can scarcely pay the day-to-day bills, let alone cover the cost of a pricy operation. But as the film opens, Osman goes to collect an old friend, Eddy (Benoit Poelvoorde) from prison, and the irrepressible Eddy, motivated by equal parts friendship and deviltry, is soon up to his old, larcenous ways. Tied to Eddy by bonds of loyalty that date back to an undefined lifesaving incident in their past, and progressively more desperate for money, Osman eventually allows himself to be persuaded to participate in the scheme Eddy hatches to steal Chaplin’s coffin. But after the nasty deed is done, what should be the simple part —the issuing of the ransom demand, collection of the money and retirement to Easy Street— proves anything but. Oh, and Eddy joins a circus as a clown after falling for a skimpily sketched-in Chiara Mastroianni. It’s the film’s only real subplot, but arrives too late and adds too little, bar the obvious “Huh, the guy who stole Chaplin’s coffin is a literal clown!” gag, to make much of a difference.
It’s a commendably different tack to take for Beauvois, considering his last film as director (he’s an actor too) was an austere, slow-paced, deeply serious drama based on the real-life story of a group of Trappist monks killed by Islamists during the Algerian Civil War. But as a filmmaker, it feels like he lacks the lightness of touch or the mischievousness to really make this kind of story work. He is marked by a certain earnestness, hitting the story’s most predictable beats hard, and losing subtlety as a result. So while we know Osman must eventually capitulate and go along with Eddy’s scheme, Beauvois and screenwriter Etienne Comar feel that it’s necessary to show us every on-the-nose intermediate step: did we really need a long, talky scene between Osman and a snooty bank manager to let us know he’d been turned down for a loan? The slack rhythm isn’t helped by scenes that play out as though they’re meant to be funny but aren’t —the entire grave-robbing sequence is arduously long and certainly gets across the sheer difficulty and physical exhaustion involved in removing a coffin from the ground (maybe to dissuade the more impressionable among us from bolting from the cinema to disinter the nearest deceased celeb), but it serves no other narrative purpose. Even the dialogue is mostly drowned out by the bombastic orchestral score that sounds like the soundtrack to a 1960s Technicolor Western.
Which brings us to those counterpointing music cues again. Blaring out over the images, they’re presumably there in order to give the impression of a dialogue-free “silent” film, an idea reinforced by the deliberate overplaying of Poelvoorde’s role as a character designed to evoke the Little Tramp himself. Aside from one adorable scene in which Osman and Eddy get drunk and dance around Eddy’s caravan to “Zou Bisou Bisou” (the film’s best moments are those that illuminate the nature of this surprisingly touching friendship), orchestral pieces are plastered over whole sections of the film. These old-fashioned cuts (composed by Michel Legrand ) swell up suddenly out of nowhere, in one case being mixed in simultaneously with a jazz track, creating a cacophonous counterpoint to the stillness of what we’re watching. It makes a little more sense when we learn that a few of the pieces are segments of the scores from Chaplin films, but only a little.
For all those enumerated flaws, the film is undeniably well-intentioned, even if occasionally there’s a whiff of condescension in its treatment of Eddy. But just how far short it falls is best illustrated by the gulf between two skits featured at different points. Late in the movie, after Eddy has been hired as a clown (groaningly foreshadowed by the very first words we hear addressed to him being “Stop clowning around”) we watch one of his routines in full, a “Godfather”-inspired circus sketch which involves him and his fatter counterpart mock-killing each other, then doing it over again, milking every cartoony expression, in pantomime-y slow motion. Fine, it’s a circus act, but like much mime-based humor translated to screen, it’s labored and unnecessarily drawn out even while it intends to entertain, and that’s a pretty good analogy for the whole film. Contrast that with a clip from an actual Chaplin film (1917’s “The Cure,” we believe) included early in the film: Charlie pretends to swim, goggles at a violent massage being administered by a burly attendant, and ends up refereeing it like a wrestling match. It is silly, funny, charming and forlorn. Crucially, it is all those things at once, making us wonder how Chaplin himself would have tackled the story of the stealing of his own cadaver. Beauvois, with solid craftsmanship and gentle intentions competently tells that story; what he cannot do is channel the man’s spirit. [B-/C+]