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(2000) (Brenda Blethyn, Craig Ferguson) (R)

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Comedy: A recently widowed woman takes to hemp farming when she sees that as the only way to pay off her late husband's debts and save her home.
Grace Trevethan (BRENDA BLETHYN) is a middle-aged woman living in a quaint seaside village on the Cornish coast. A recent widow, Grace has just learned that her late husband racked up a considerable amount of debt and even took out a second mortgage on their three-hundred year old house, all to fund some ultimately unsuccessful business ventures. To make matters worse, he was also having an affair with Honey (DIANA QUICK), a woman from London.

Everyone in the small town knows of Grace's financial difficulties, but despite their efforts to help her out, the creditors continue to arrive and remove her belongings bit by bit, and it looks like she'll eventually lose her home. Even her gardener and all around handyman, Matthew (CRAIG FERGUSON), decides to stay on with her, despite his last check bouncing.

When Matthew asks Grace, who's known for her lovely greenhouse and proficient green thumb, to look after some ailing cannabis plants he's been covertly growing with his fishing captain girlfriend, Nicky (VALERIE EDMOND) and the town's local physician, Dr. Martin Bamford (MARTIN CLUNES), the two suddenly hit upon an idea. If Grace could bring his sick plants back to life, they could then sell the lucrative marijuana and raise enough capital to pay off her debts and save her home.

Converting her formerly traditional greenhouse into a marijuana factory, Grace and Matthew set out to do just that, despite Nicky's objections and the possible criminal ramifications of doing so. Nonetheless, they manage to keep their operation secret from the local lawman, Sgt. Alfred (KEN CAMPBELL), although most everyone else in the town eventually gets wind of what they're doing.

With the pot now ready to be harvested, Grace then sets out to find someone who will buy it. As her venture eventually involves international drug dealer Jacques Chevalier (TCH╔KY KARYO) and his henchman China McFarlane (JAMIE FORMAN), Grace races to unload her stash before the various creditors seize her home or the police figure out what she's up to.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
As is the case with nearly any cinematic genre, there's obviously more than one way to craft a comedy, with none being inherently more guaranteed for laughs and success than the next. Yet, one of the more entertaining ones - if designed and executed correctly - is taking a story and going against the grain, if you will, and/or having its characters play against type.

For instance, imagine dame Judi Dench and Kristin Scott Thomas appearing in a female-based sequel to "Dumb and Dumber." Okay, perhaps that's too absurd to be funny, but the point is that contrasting elements - often in the form of non-stereotypical characters appearing in usually stereotypical roles -- often create some hilarious moments.

When one thinks of strippers, comedy usually doesn't come to mind - notwithstanding the unintentionally funny moments of "Showgirls" and "Striptease" - but if you have a bunch of pasty, out of shape men trying to do the male stripper thing, the results can be funny as was the case with "The Full Monty."

Likewise, one would never imagine a small coastal town of older Irish folk collectively conspiring to break the law. Nevertheless, when that happened in "Waking Ned Devine" as such villagers tried to pull the wool over the eyes of the Dublin-based gaming board by passing off one of their own in place of a recently deceased lottery winner, the results were unexpected and quite hilarious.

Now along comes "Saving Grace," another foreign-based comedy that hopes to do for drug harvesting and use what those films did for their respective subjects. Thematically and geographically akin to those other efforts, this is one of those pictures where the humor not only stems from the unlikely and unexpected sight of someone like two-time Oscar-nominated actress Brenda Blethyn growing an industrial amount of hemp, but also from the charm that seems to effortlessly emanate from such small and isolated northern European coastal villages.

As was the case with "WND," part of the pleasure of the film comes from watching its highly charismatic characters, their idiosyncratic behavior, and their interesting and unusual reaction to the course of events that unfold along with the main plot, particularly as they all conspire to aid and abet the "criminals" and their plan. The resultant effect and isolated locale, while certainly not novel, constantly gives the film a charming veneer.

Of course, drugs and the cinema have a long history together as well, both in comedic and dramatic form. Notwithstanding the unintentionally funny scare/propaganda film "Reefer Madness," however, most of the comedies are usually about a bunch of stoners where the intended humor is aimed at that exact demographic audience. The most recent example of such films was the abysmal "Half Baked," but the epitome of them is obviously those old Cheech and Chong films - such as "Up in Smoke" - that made drug use seem cool and funny to all but the most ardent drug opponents.

This film takes a rather different approach by playing such humor both ways. Those who've dabbled in drugs will enjoy the "squares" getting stoned for the first time and finding out what all of the fuss was about, while those who have never partaken may just enjoy watching their drug free "peers" accidentally and/or purposefully getting high (and thus somewhat vicariously experience what it's like themselves without actually doing anything wrong/illegal).

While the film's political agenda on drugs isn't exactly one hundred percent clear (although some guesses can be made based on certain comments delivered by key characters), it gets away with innocently and amusingly presenting drug use due to its charming, "wink-wink, nudge-nudge" demeanor. It might not be as exaggerated as what the old Monty Python troupe would have fashioned in one of their skits given the same basic idea, but it would probably still make them proud for its unique English sense of humor.

Of course, one's notion of whether all of this is funny or not will depend on their tolerance for such material, but the way in screenwriters Craig Ferguson ("The Big Tease") and Mark Crowdy (the film's producer) have fashioned it here pretty much makes it just as acceptable as the shenanigans that occurred in those other aforementioned films.

For example, there probably won't be many viewers who don't get something of a kick out of watching two old ladies unknowingly brew some hemp tea and subsequently getting both high and a case of the "munchies," or Blethyn's character deciding she should try what she's growing, resulting in a similar reaction.

Although most of the humor isn't of the "wet your pants it's so hilarious" variety, there are plenty of funny or amusing moments to go around, some of which stem from that unique British style of humor where things normally not associated with laughs (death and foreclosure, etc.) are treated so irreverently that they become funny. That, and the matter that one character casually describes as the continued tradition of complete and utter disrespect of the law, makes for a rather entertaining little film.

To pull off such a comedy, the performances have to be just right and director Nigel Cole, who makes his feature film debut after helming various TV productions, manages to elicit some inspired ones from his cast. Embodying a middle-aged widow who resorts to desperate measures (in a comedic sense), Brenda Blethyn ("Little Voice," "Secrets and Lies") is a quite good in the role. The sight of her in an outrageous, white "superfly" outfit as she bumbles her way through attempting to solicit drug dealers in downtown London is something that has to be seen to be appreciated.

The supporting performances are also quite amusing and/or decent, with Craig Ferguson ("The Big Tease," TV's "The Drew Carey Show") as Grace's partner in crime, Valerie Edmond ("One More Kiss," "Fierce Creatures") as his girlfriend, Martin Clunes ("Shakespeare in Love," the BBC's "Men Behaving Badly") as the town's doctor, and Tcheky Karyo ("The Patriot," "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc") as an international drug dealer, all delivering good takes on their respective characters.

While the film has is share of funny and amusing moments, I kept wanting and waiting for the story to add additional comical complications to the protagonists' goals, and for it to become crazier and more outrageous as it proceeded. Although it gets a bit zany toward the end when everyone ends up piling up at Grace's home for the big finale, it probably would have been a bit more enjoyable had more of that occurred more often during the film. That's certainly not a horrible or crippling fault by any means, however, and as it stands, the film's still charming and entertaining enough to appease those who enjoyed the brand of humor previously found in the likes of "The Full Monty" and "Waking Ned Devine." "Saving Grace" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed July 20, 2000 / Posted August 4, 2000

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