Post office manager Philippe Abrams (Kad Merad) and his wife, Julie (Zoe Felix), love the South of France but when he's found out trying to cheat his way to a posting to the Riviera, he is sent to the dreaded Nord Pas de Calais region for two years. This is France's northernmost region, noted for bad weather, nasty factories and weird food, and socially repressed locals who speak with a terrible dialect.
You’ll never go broke making fun of country folk. It’s this simple fact that makes the broad fish-out-of-water tale such a sure-fire box office draw. Just ask the French, who have flocked to the cinema in record numbers to watch Welcome to the Sticks, a film that works the conventions of the formula to the hilt but sadly contributes nothing fresh to the genre.
The plot is simple: A city snob is forced to confront his prejudices and gasp, live with the lowly locals of a regional backwater. Sound familiar? It ought to.
Every country has made this film in one way or another. In Australia the premise has been used in Dad & Dave, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, They’re a Weird Mob, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and the (similarly titled) Welcome to Woop Woop. Now the French are in on the act as well, with mixed results.
The story revolves around a put-upon post office manager, Philippe, who forsakes common sense in his desperation to win a plum job transfer to the Cote D’azur. He fakes a disability to try and get the gig but when his plan backfires, he is banished to a remote town in the much-derided North of France (Nord-Pas de Calais). Socially speaking, it’s equivalent to Siberia and Philippe is one unhappy postie.
His wife, Julie, is guilt-ridden at having pressured him into applying for the transfer in the first place, and she’s frantic at the thought of his suffering in the cold, dark, desolate North. Mind you, she’s in no hurry to join him and stays behind in sunny Salon-De-Provence, for the good of the couple’s young son.
Julie's grim view of 'The North’ is shared by friends, colleagues, and even members of the local constabulary, who offer nothing but furrowed brows, knowing looks and sympathetic pats on the shoulder, upon learning of Philippe’s fate. Curiously, no one thinks to suggest that Philippe could simply resign, rather than split up his family to endure this fate they all seem to think is worse than death. I guess that wouldn’t be funny, but frankly, Welcome to the Sticks isn’t exactly a laugh riot either.
To be fair, it’s hard to land a punch line about language when it’s conveyed by subtitles. To that end, native French speakers are bound to get more out of the lively banter, which revolves around mangled pronunciation and miscommunication. The running gag rests on the curious ch’ti dialect (a shortcut of French and Flemish) spoken by the local yokels, which makes for much mockery and misunderstanding"¦ there's even a rehash of the vintage 'Who’s on First’ gag.
In this type of broad comedy there’s no place for subtlety. That doesn’t necessarily make Welcome to the Sticks a bad film. It’s good natured, has a romantic subplot, encourages acceptance (Quelle surprise! The North's not as bad as everyone thinks!!) and is the definition of feelgood comedy. It’s just that it has been done so many times before, and done better.