While it’s generally not essential for a film about a successful creative character to get their job right, there’s something conspicuous about the hottest stand-up comedian in France never once saying anything funny. In “The Price of Success,” a a cliche-larded drama about celebrity malaise, Tahar Rahim, best known for his galvanizing turn in “A Prophet,” stars as a blockbuster comic who sells out arenas but seems incapable of making people laugh. It doesn’t help that the film bears so much similarity to Chris Rock’s “Top Five,” a funny drama by and about one of the world’s premier stand-ups. The absence of humor here feeds into the perversive inauthenticity that dogs the action. Rahim remains a magnetic leading man, but original insights into fame, family and ethnic identity are few and far between.
In his second feature, co-writer/director Teddy Lussi-Modeste (“Jimmy Riviere”) plays up the carnival-of-life craziness that engulfs a French comedian of North African origin at a crucial point in his career. For the mono-monikered Brahim (Rahim), life at the top has earned him a luxurious apartment, endorsements and movie deals, as well as a beautiful girlfriend, Linda (Maiwenn), who’s eager to help him move to the next level. But the demands of his fan base and his family are wearing him down, and a recent series of bad headlines and management decisions have left him spinning his wheels and worrying about the future. He starts to blame his tempestuous brother, Mourad (Roschdy Zem), who has served as his agent, manager, bodyguard and sounding board from the very beginning.
When Brahim was a young talent on the rise, Mourad was his loyal and aggressive advocate, but lately his brother has been throwing impromptu rowdy parties at his apartment, picking fights with adversaries and signing him to commercials and other projects that aren’t worthy of his superstar status. On top of that, Mourad has been treating Linda as more of a threat than a partner in steering Brahim’s career — and a more polished agent, Herve (Gregoire Colin), has swooped into his life, promising new opportunities and a steadier hand. The inevitable rift between Brahim and Mourad has a terrible fallout for both men and leaves Brahim without the family that’s always been his base of support. Moreover, Brahim’s identity as an Arab star seems in danger of eroding, too.
Though surrounded by more internationally recognized castmates, Zem gives the film’s standout performance as a fiercely dedicated but petty and genuinely dangerous presence in his brother’s life. Mourad is partly responsible for the toxicity that’s seeped into the relationship, but he’s also sunk by personality traits that served Brahim well at one point in his career but hang on him like an albatross now. Mourad is the only complex character in “The Price of Success” — given to deplorable behavior, like his casual misogyny toward Linda, and redeeming qualities, too, like an almost childlike devotion and vulnerability. For better or worse, Brahim can always count on his brother.
But there are no aspects of Brahim’s life as a celebrity that “The Price of Success” examines with any depth or surprise. A star isolated by fame? A slick agent? A controlling girlfriend who may or may not be a Yoko Ono clone? A family that grows fat on his paychecks but turns on him when it matters? These are all the standard cliches, and while the story takes a few odd lurches into kidnapping and violence, everything gets cleaned up with a tidiness that buffs the movie’s rougher edges. Brahim is working with some tame material, on and off the stage.