"I'm basically really happy," says the genial hotel clerk Karim (Jamel Debbouze) in the first scene of Agnes Jaoui's "Let It Rain," a brisk French dramedy in which happiness constantly lurks just barely outside the frame. Looking for an escape his unremarkable life, Karim joins forces with self-described "reporter" Michel (Joui's ongoing writing partner, Jean-Pierre Bacri) to make an ill-fated documentary about the established feminist writer Agathe Villanova (Jaoui), whose long-standing family maid happens to be Karim's Algerian mother. There are tensions of both racial and professional natures in this arrangement, but they lurk in the nuances of finely-tuned characters. Refreshingly -- for American audiences, anyway -- everyone in "Let It Rain" has genuinely good intentions.
Arriving in U.S. theaters nearly two years after its stateside premiere at the New York Film Festival, the movie bears a French title that literally translates as "Let's Talk About the Rain," an appropriate summation of a story exclusively driven by people babbling about their predominantly inconsequential problems. Like Jaoui and Bacri's earlier collaborations (2000's "The Taste of Others" and 2004's "Look at Me"), "Let It Rain" focuses on a small cast of characters rather than foregrounding any one of them. As a result, the theme becomes the true star of the show, but mainly through naturalism and an appreciably unforced comedic vibe.
The central trio -- Agatha, Karim and Michel -- each suffers from an overabundance of false confidence. Because its poor conception, the documentary project ends up as a kind of group therapy for the three of them. As the production continually faces new obstacles (the camera isn't rolling, the battery doesn't work, the sheep keep bleating in the background), their confident facades slowly fall away.
Agatha, a moody scholar leaning towards politics, can't seem to reconcile her angry conceits about gender imbalance with her own uneven relationship. Karim haplessly sees through her complex psychological armor. "She's nice -- for an activist," he says. Michel, a divorcee, explains Agatha to his son as "a woman who's always making demands...like your mother." In the contrast of these drifting loners, it becomes clear that they all suffer equally from a lack of confidence.
"Let It Rain" takes a shot at deeper issues of classism with Karim's Algerian background and Agatha's air of condescension towards him. Fortunately, Joui keeps the racial tension in a subtle mode until a late outburst in which she willingly embodies white guilt, calling herself "a privileged Parisian." When Agnes's pomposity gives way to an honest critique of her lifestyle, the director brings humanity to a social issue without growing preachy.
But Jaoi and Bacri devote most of their energies to the personal issues plaguing their cast, demonstrating that ambition often masks insecurities. "I'd prefer an ideal world," Agatha says, ostensibly referring to gender equality, but the line doubles as a reference to her own perpetually lonely existence.
The success of "Let It Rain" owes much to a strong lineup of performances, particularly Debbouze ("Days of Glory," "Angel-A"), France's preeminent likable everyman. Still, as neither major tear-jerker nor crowdpleasing laughfest, the movie has fleeting power. But even with the slightness of it, Jaoi's avoidance of hyperbolic confrontations is a revelation.
Closer in tone to smartly scripted American cable programs than anything currently unspooling at the multiplexes, Jaoui and Bacri's script adopts a humble, unhurried approach. There's no climactic eruption of emotion where latent anger bursts forth in a tell-all monologue. The cheery finale avoids fully resolving each personal dilemma. Instead, "Let It Rain" positions happiness as a constant work in progress.