The French comedy “L’ascension (The Climb)” is so cheerful and cutesie that pounding it would be like kicking a puppy.
Everybody grins. True love is given its ultimate test. And even if one questions the “sight gag” motives of the French for putting a Senegalese -Frenchman in the Himalayas, it’s still an adorable fish-out-of-water variation. It works.
It’s a heavily fictionalized version of a real-life event. They’ve changed the name, the ethnicity of the climber, shoved in a romance and invented all the dialogue. But basically, the story of Samy Diakhaté (Ahmed Sylla), a resident of “the estates” (projects) and a member of the unemployed working-poor of Le Courneuve — a fellow with zero climbing experience attempting to summit Mount Everest, is true. It just happened to somebody of different ethnicity and name.
We meet Samy as he loads up his backpack, catches a ride in his dad’s taxi, and sets out for Nepal.
“Try and go all the way, this time,” is his father’s (Denis Mpunga) way of saying goodbye. I mean, he loves his 26 year-old unemployed son and all. But the kid has follow-through issues.
Much of that is due to circumstances. Unemployment is a way of life where they live, especially for African emigres.
Samy’s mates give him a lift to the station and urge him to prove that “We’re not good for nothing (in French, with English subtitles).”
Samy’s journey has flashbacks folded into it that show how he took on this quest. There is this woman…
Nadia (Alice Belaïdi) likes him enough to go out with him. But “What have you done?” she wants to know. He’s got no ambition, no accomplishments and no plans. She’s very sweet when she dismisses him, but still, it’s “Get back to me when you do.”
“I’d climb Mount Everest for you!”
That’s a promise he rather perfunctorily, in this screenplay, sets out to keep. He is laughed out of banks when he tries to get loans, but a clothing manufacturer decides to sponsor him. And FM Radio Nomade kicks in the rest, provided he calls in updates.
That’s how Nadia finds out that he’s undertaken love challenge. All her friends are like “Ooo, so romantic” or “Wasn’t there an EASIER way to get rid of him?”
Director and co-writer Ludovic Bernard intercuts scenes from Samy’s family, Nadia’s supermarket clerk workplace and Radio Nomade with Samy’s progress. Each stop along the way has its altitude and location listed in a graphic — “Kathmandu (Nepal), 1400 meters.”
Samy’s lied about his climbing experience and bought his gear at a local discount store (apparently). He has the flippant arrogance of youth about this quest. And what he doesn’t know could kill him, or deny him the chance to get far enough into the journey to succeed.
The grousing climb-guide Jeff (Nicolas Wanczycki) has to give all his attention to Samy, ignoring the experienced Australians, Germans, Brits and Koreans of his group. But this delightful Sherpa, whom Samy names “Johnny” (Umesh Tamang) for all the t-shirts the guy wears with the image of the “French Elvis,” Johnny Hallyday, on them does all of Samy’s heavy lifting, smiling all the way.
If Samy can stop griping — “We’re running! We’re not even taking in the views!” — and learn “one breath, one step,” and every other mountaineering thing he’s never learned, maybe Jeff and Johnny can get him to the top.
It’s a cheesy, cheerful little bauble of a movie where we get lots of second-unit footage of the mountains, but little sense that the actors are suffering from the extreme cold one endures to climb them.
Samy becomes a phenomenon via the radio station’s interviews cheerleading him on. Magazines, the national news soon follow. His romantic quest played up by one and all.
But nobody — not the radio station, not TV or print — bothers to interview the woman who inspired this journey. Don’t they have journalism schools in France?
The obstacles are obvious and never cross the line into life-threatening. The conflict back home is contrived and Nadia’s warming to Samy in absentia feels abrupt and invented.
Probably because it was and is, because so much of this story is just “story” and didn’t actually happen. Samy meets no mean people, no villains or cheats on his way.
The Nepalese and Sherpas come off as unfailingly honest and supportive.
But Sylla is an absolutely charming lead, a fish adorably out of water. He makes Samy amusing in his naivete, earnest in his heartsickness for Natalie and laugh-out-loud funny as he grumps and stumbles and fails — and stops to feed candy to musk ox.
You can’t say there’s more to “The Climb” than there is. But what’s here is a cute time-killer. Not every movie about Everest has to end with Josh Brolin’s frozen corpse stuck on the North Face.
MPAA Rating: unrated, marijuana joke
Credits: Directed by Ludovic Bernard, script by Ludovic Bernard and Olivier Ducray. A Mars/StudioCanal/Netflix release.
Running time: 1:43