Weeding The Garden

In 'Saving Grace,' Cultivating Cannabis Preserves England's Upper Crust.

SAVING GRACE IS such a terrible title for a film that I went in to see it with a small suitcase full of reservations. Who comes up with these awful pseudo-pun titles, anyway? Yes, the lead character's name is Grace. Calling the film Saving Grace is then about as intelligent as calling the steak special at a family restaurant "The Steak It to Me!"

OK, so, apparently, whoever came up with the title had nothing to do with the film, because it is not only laugh-out-loud funny, it's smart laugh-out-loud funny.

Probably this is due in part to the fact that this is an English film, not an American comedy. Americans think nothing is funnier than two stupid guys (Abbott and Costello, Dumb and Dumber, Bill and Ted, Wayne and Garth, Reagan and Bush). The English, on the other hand, think Samuel Johnson is a laugh riot. It's a bit of a cultural divide, one that has always caused me to claim I was Canadian when visiting the United Kingdom.

Oddly, the plot for Saving Grace actually sounds like the plot of a stupid American comedy. (I am not opposed to stupid American comedies, by the way; that's just the kind of comedy that we Americans happen to be good at--I mean, Curly Howard was a freakin' genius, you know, for a guy who did stupid comedy.)

Grace (Brenda Blethyn) is a newly widowed fifty-something woman whose husband has left her a mound of debt that threatens her hold on the 300-year-old home in which she lives. Her groundskeeper Matthew (Craig Ferguson, who wrote the script and is far better here than in his regular role on The Drew Carey Show) has a bit of plan to help Grace out.

It seems that Matthew's crop of cannabis is failing, and Grace is the finest gardener in the county. She takes in some of Matthew's sativa seedlings and starts a high-tech hydroponics lab in her quaint little greenhouse. Soon an indecent amount of indica is burgeoning in her back yard, and plans are afoot to turn the sinsemilla into some serious profit.

Of course, there are the standard scenes of elderly women "tripping out" on reefer; there are the village residents whom one would not expect to be potheads who, grace à comédie, are potheads; and there are the encounters between stuffy, upper-class Grace and some scruffy, drug-dealing lowlifes. Nonetheless, in spite of the fact that director Nigel Cole is dealing with the kind of material that made Tommy Chong famous, he manages to get some high-level laughs out of it.

On top of this, there's also real drama. Not the American kind of drama wherein an angelic character played by Kim Basinger or Michelle Pfeiffer rescues a mentally retarded African orphan from a life-threatening disease by taking on the insurance industry with the help of her hard-bitten lawyer who softens under her caring regard and then marries her after winning a million-dollar settlement and saving all the children everywhere.

Rather, a more morally ambiguous character, the titular Grace, is faced with the loss of her moneyed lifestyle. Her means of combating this coming end of her wealthy excess is by no means entirely heroic, but Brenda Blethyn brings a kind of sad fragility to the role that makes the character of Grace extremely sympathetic, while still allowing her to display a great deal of strength. Thanks to the thoughtful script and Blethyn's compelling performance, Grace is one of the more complicated protagonists on the screen, but is nonetheless entirely believable.

The plot, on the other hand, is not so credible, and takes perhaps a few too many "zany" turns, especially when it introduces London gangster Jacques, played by the extremely talented, but not so selective, Tchéky Karyo. There are also some problems with a subplot involving Matthew the Groundskeeper's pregnant wife (Valerie Edmond, who seems to be in the wrong movie here), who doesn't want him involved in the drug trade. I mean, who needs a spoilsport like that around when there's dope to be harvested?

But on the whole, Saving Grace is a big success. The cinematography isn't very interesting or innovative, but the English coastal landscape is so beautiful that it doesn't call for any special camera play. The cast is almost all good, and the characters are richly drawn. American audiences might find the pace a bit slow--the humor rate runs at about one joke every four minutes, whereas American comedies tend to throw the jokes out at about one every 45 seconds--but it pays off in that all the jokes are funny.

Saving Grace is playing at the Catalina (881-0616) and Century Gateway 12 (792-9000).