Michael O’Donohue said it best: "If marijuana doesn’t cause brain damage, then why do so many teenagers think Cheech and Chong are funny?"
Saving Grace is like a British Cheech and Chong movie, with one, endlessly repeated gag: the wry eccentrics of a rural fishing village start growing, and smoking, hydroponic pot. It’s Waking Ned Devine with bong jokes, and how funny you find itwill depend on how amused you are by the very notion of marijuana. If the mere sight of elderly women toking up convulses you with laughter, you’ll be in heaven: there hasn’t been a pot movie this single-minded or celebratory since Up in Smoke.
The movie feels like it was written and directed with one hand on the bong, its rhythms and pacing steeped in THC. This is deadly for comedy. The movie staggers where it should skip lightly, its scenes elastic and unshaped. It builds to gags that are then dropped absent-mindedly or, worse yet, protracted well past the threshold of pain. There’s no comic energy, only cute, labored whimsy. It’s like trying to have a conversation with a giggling stoner – they’re finding something really amusing, but only they know what.
Brenda Blethyn plays Grace, a woman whose complacency is shattered when her husband dies. She had counted on a comfortable retirement, but soon learns that his terrible investments have left her destitute. Her house at risk, she decides to devote her considerable gardening expertise to developing a crop of supremely potent marijuana. She and her inept handyman Matthew (Craig Ferguson, Drew Carey’s sitcom boss) devote themselves to making a killing with one enormous sale, dodging the village’s lone policeman and Matthew’s angry girlfriend along the way.
Blethyn is a gifted actress whose courageous performance in Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies was justly lauded. There, she was willing to make an audience uncomfortable with her exposed, desperate vulnerability. Here, she struggles against the film’s weightlessness. She tries to infuse the film with feeling and in a few scenes – her first toke, a lunch with her dead husband’s mistress – she manages to give a sense of how much better it could have been. The smoking scene is especially fine, the one moment where the film manages some distance from its chemical inspiration. She slides from skepticism to bemusement to mushheaded giggling in a perfect recreation of a first high. But the film defeats her even there. The scene is twice as long as it should be, all its pleasure drained away with its smug final shot.
Saving Grace has its small pleasures. The village is vividly imagined, with a strong sense of community and a feel for the languid rhythms of seaside life. It’s at its best when it ignores the plot and the major characters, taking a moment to soak in the ambience of a pub or watch fishermen cast their nets. These asides call to mind Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero, the film’s obvious model, in the quiet delight they take in capturing the light and color of a stormy day or the odd products lining the shelves of a local grocery.
These reveries disappear once Grace ventures to London to sell her harvest. She meets with a French drug dealer (Tcheky Karyo, channeling Diva‘sZen bootlegger) and the film degenerates into a frantic farce. Blethyn is soon so enmeshed in ridiculous plot twists that all she can do is smile and make the best of it while the film lurches towards incoherence. The amiable, if misshapen, pothead fantasy gives way to a protracted chase then swings back with a "what if everyone got high, man?" scene that would have been embarrassing in 1971. Capping it all is an attempt at postmodern media parody so out of place it feels like the ending of a different film altogether.
Be careful, kids: if you’re going to smoke pot, don’t make movies. Innocent people might get hurt.