If the prospect of watching Gérard Depardieu rap — or rather, witnessing the massive French star roll back and forth on his hips, grab his crotch and shout “Yo yo! Bang bang!” in some grotesquely out-of-touch caricature of gangsta rap — sounds like reason enough to see a movie, then “Tour de France” delivers. But that bizarre spectacle is something of an anomaly in actor-turned-director Rachid Djaïdani’s ultra-P.C. group hug of a movie, which is otherwise so determined to fix what ails France in the wake of recent terrorist attacks and rising racism that it comes across like an obsequious child trying to calm his red-faced parents at the height of a dish-smashing domestic dispute — or worse, a Gallic “Driving Miss Daisy.”
Set around an implausible road trip in which an angry yet bizarrely unaggressive young French-Arab rapper named Far’Hook (Sadek) chauffeurs his producer’s hip-hop-averse dad, Serge (Depardieu), around the coast of France, the film offers a contrived opportunity for a not-that-backward old white guy to befriend — and ultimately defend — a not-that-threatening person of color. The fact that Djaïdani cast Depardieu to represent traditional French values is practically a punchline in itself, given the actor’s decision to renounce his passport in favor of Russian citizenship.
But there’s no denying Depardieu’s stature as France’s most iconic working actor, and even in such a relatively undemanding role as this. Reminiscent of post-method-acting Marlon Brando’s late phone-it-in performances (which were never not interesting, even when he appeared patently lazy onscreen), Depardieu’s turn boils with life, even when he’s sulking on the side of the road. What it doesn’t do, however, is go anywhere near the grizzled, “Get off my lawn!” surliness that Clint Eastwood brought to the superficially similar “Gran Torino” — and that might have rendered “Tour de France” edgy enough to hold up with today’s ironic young moviegoers.
In a sense, this culture-clash pairing is so Disneyfied as to resemble Pixar’s “Up,” with its cheek-pinchingly cute Boy Scout doing everything he could to melt a curmudgeonly old widower’s heart. Never mind that it’s all catalyzed by a back-alley shooting — a bit of “Yo yo! Bang bang!” that forces Far’Hook to flee Paris and hide out with Serge until the heat dies down. The idea is for Far’Hook and Serge to realize that they’re not really all that different after all and to bond over the fact that everybody feels like an outsider sometimes, even grumpy white guys who feel marginalized by mainstream culture.
But it’s a little too easy to reach that conclusion here, and it might be more useful to witness these two characters learn something about one another, instead of merely managing to get along. Despite his tough tell-it-like-it-is lyrics, Far’Hook has no real edge. He’s basically an overgrown kid, hiding beneath his headphones, too shy to talk to girls, yet touchy-feely enough that he keeps a video diary via his camera phone, supplying quasi-poetic interludes which Djaïdani freely incorporates into the film’s own loose-flowing narrative, en route to a big hip-hop event in Marseilles, where he’s set to appear in concert for the film’s surprise cameo.
Mushier still is Depardieu’s character, an amateur artiste who is upholding a promise to his late wife by retracing the steps of French painter Claude Joseph Vernet, who is to seaports as Turner is to sunsets. And so the duo go about their tour, Serge doing second-rate copies of Vernet’s classic port-raits, Far’Hook documenting puddles of water and animals they pass along the way with his phone. At one point, they stumble upon a young lady in a minivan, and Far’Hook manages to seduce her with his freestyle — which, one supposes, is what is happening little by little to Serge over the course of their journey.
The old man’s problem isn’t just that he doesn’t recognize the artistry involved in Far’Hook’s hip-hop. Digging deeper, we learn that Serge has “lost” his son (Nicolas Marétheu) to Islam some years earlier, when the young man left home, changed his name to Bilal and became a music producer. Being forced to spend time with Far’Hook gives him a chance to finally understand these dual aspects — music and religion — of his estranged son’s life.
There’s no avoiding the corniness of these scenes, though Depardieu brings his best qualities to bear on these scenes. On one hand, he’s an actor who seems to have let himself go, and yet, he amid the weariness he manages to convey the wonder of any given situation, whether it’s listening to recordings from his son’s cell phone or marveling at a red begonia that drops, unscripted, into his dinner plate.