Welcome to the Sticks (review)

From an outsider’s perspective, Welcome to the Sticks is a straightforward fish-out-of-water comedy — French post office worker Phillipe (Kad Merad) is forced to transfer to a small town in the north of France, a punishment worse than being fired. Will he discover that the northern region is not as backwards as he once thought? Will he warm up to his new employees and neighbours? Will they learn lessons from each other and become better people in the process? Let’s put it this way — France may not be Hollywood, but it’s not that far removed.

Still, something in this warm French comedy captured the national imagination. A third of the country went to see it in theatres, unseating Titanic as the top-grossing film ever released in France. It has been discussed by French politicians and has led to skyrocketing sales for a regional cheese featured in the film — Will Smith is even slated to produce an American remake. Clearly, the home crowd loved it, but it remains to be seen whether that affection will carry over internationally.

With the exception of an early scene in which Phillipe pretends to be handicapped in the hopes of getting a transfer to warmer climes (which is funny and nowhere near as offensive as it sounds), the bulk of the film’s humour is based around regional French stereotypes. Southerner Phillipe naturally assumes the northerners will be backwards rubes — accented hicks guaranteed to make his life a living hell. The northerners, meanwhile, immediately see Phillipe as a typical southerner, too stuck up to ever give them a fair shot. The specifics of the stereotypes may be unique, but the gist is universal — knowledge of France’s geography is by no means a prerequisite.

In fact, the film’s setting is its biggest boon. The familiar plot doesn’t seem quite so well-worn when Phillipe is picking up the regional slang, wincing at the cuisine and learning the ropes of northern life. In a particularly nice twist, when Phillipe comes around to the pleasures of his new home, his wife (who stays in the south out of fear for herself and their son) refuses to believe him, assuming he’s sugar-coating details to avoid worrying her.

Aside from Phillipe and his flighty employee Antoine (Dany Boon, who also directed and co-wrote), the characters aren’t particularly fleshed out. Line Renaud provides some fine moments as Antoine’s overbearing mother, and Anne Marivin is adorable as Antoine’s warm-hearted love interest (thankfully, Phillipe never even entertains the idea of a clichéd inter-city affair), but the characters are more cinematic conventions than flesh and blood humans.

Welcome to the Sticks seems far too unassuming to be the biggest French film of all time, but that’s part of its charm. What it does, it does well — it’s obviously a crowd-pleaser — and as long as you go in with simple expectations, it will meet them just fine.

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