Like the glorious, overripe Michel Legrand score lavished over an otherwise quiet affair, there’s something knowingly, beguilingly out of time about “The Price of Fame,”an ostensibly humble crime caper that winds up a heartfelt plea for a more innocent way of life. Xavier Beauvois’ first film since 2010’s somber Cannes Grand Prix winner “Of Gods and Men” — and the first comic outing of his career — riffs jovially on the true 1978 story of two blue-collar immigrants in small-town Switzerland who exhumed Charlie Chaplin’s remains in a botched ransom attempt. Facts have been liberally altered, however, to suit Beauvois’ conception of the tale as a human comedy worthy of the Little Tramp himself. Wry, sentimental and carried with shaggy charm by Benoit Poelvoorde and Roschdy Zem as the lovable crooks, “Fame” should parlay its helmer’s cachet and the universality of the Chaplin connection into widespread arthouse exposure.
Overlength is the principal failing of a film that otherwise negotiates the balance between whimsy and gravitas with considerable restraint and intelligence: At nearly two hours, this slender story feels mildly (if not unenjoyably) padded onscreen, as if to convince auds of its human consequentiality. That’s hardly necessary, given that Poelvoorde and Zem’s twin studies in hardscrabble loserdom both evince and inspire sincere empathy. The characters’ deep sense of caring for each other is touchingly evident from the first scene, as Algerian-born family man Osman (Zem) collects Belgian petty criminal Eddy (Poelvoorde) from a stint in the slammer. (The film’s digression from the truth begins here: Chaplin’s real-life grave robbers were a Pole and a Bulgarian.)
In return for room and board while he gets back on his feet, Eddy also agrees to look after Osman’s bright-spark 7-year-old daughter, Samira (newcomer Seli Gmach, delightfully alert but never obnoxious), during the working day. Samira’s mother, Noor (Nadine Labaki), is in hospital with severe hip arthritis, sending the family’s already fragile breadline existence drastically into the red, as the insurance-challenged Osman must stump up more than 50,000 francs for the necessary operation. It’s on Christmas Day 1977, as the news of Charlie Chaplin’s death in their own town breaks across the airwaves, that Eddy hits on the outlandish plan he believes can solve all their financial woes — to dig up and rebury Chaplin’s coffin, demanding a million francs from the star’s widow Oona to secure its safe return.
It’s a scheme so obviously harebrained, it’s hard to believe it was attempted at all. Beauvois and co-scribe Etienne Comar do a fine job of dramatizing Osman’s panicked state and ever-narrowing slate of options in such a way as to render him hopelessly vulnerable to the first proposed solution. The ensuing execution of the crime plays out as an odd, winning hybrid of Ealing-comedy hijinks and Dardennes-style social realism. The friends’ bumbling incompetence at nearly every stage of the procedure yields multiple belly laughs (their progressively shrill, deranged ransom calls to the Chaplin estate are a particular source of hilarity), but their antics are underpinned by a consistent sense of the last-chance desperation that necessitates them in the first place.
If their hapless goal of doing right by first doing wrong puts viewers in mind of the well-intentioned chaos routinely caused by Chaplin’s iconic Little Tramp figure in his own screen adventures, that’s no accident. (Beauvois includes a generous slice of one of Chaplin’s early shorts midway through, as if to guarantee his film at least one interlude of unadulterated magic.) Above and apart from Chaplin’s own factual place in the story, Beauvois has fashioned “The Price of Fame” as an affectionate tribute to Chaplin’s legacy as a filmmaker, performer and figure of identification for a vast generation of filmgoers. The gentle everyman humanity that he embodied for many viewers is even invoked by Osman and Eddy’s lawyer (a twinkly cameo from Louis-Do De Lencquesaing) as a line of defense at their eventual trial. An undercooked secondary narrative that finds Eddy falling for circus performer Rosa (Chiara Mastroianni) and joining her to work at the Big Top is also a nod to Chaplin’s vaudeville origins (and faintly parallels his 1928 feature “The Circus”). It’s a notionally sweet development that veers a shade too close to preciousness.
Chaplin family members Eugene and Dolores (playing her own aunt) even pop up in the ensemble, while Chaplin’s scores for “Limelight” and “City Lights” are knitted into the soundtrack. Yet it’s the swelling compositions of 82-year-old veteran Michel Legrand that resonate most strongly here, with Beauvois often submerging entire scenes with old-school strings and jazzy piano ornamentation. It’s a defiantly, even eccentrically, romantic score that will divide viewers, particularly in scenes where Beauvois dares to fade out dialogue altogether in favor of the music. Still, its pointed contrast with the bleak reality of the protagonists’ existence (defined in handsome autumnal hues by cinematographer Caroline Champetier and production designer Yann Megard) works effectively as a bittersweet reminder of the improbable movie-world ending to which they aspire — and which Beauvois may or may not grant them.