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Reefer Madness 

Brenda Blethyn carries on in the best tradition of British movie humor in the pot-centric Saving Grace.

Irish charm and British eccentricity are hot properties to U.S. moviegoers. Witness the phenomenal success here of The Secret of Roan Inish, in which a 10-year-old Irish girl finds her lost brother living among seals off her country's rugged western coast, or of The Full Monty, wherein working-class Englishmen tackle unemployment through striptease. The year's first major trans-Atlantic assault on the Yank funnybone is Saving Grace, a relentless charmer about a plucky, middle-class Cornish widow who staves off impending poverty by cultivating marijuana in her greenhouse. While antidrug crusaders may not be amused, the moviemakers have hit their mark: The best English comedy invariably aims to rap authority on the nose.

The film's heroine, Grace Trefethan (Brenda Blethyn), descends from an illustrious comic line -- the shy bank clerk who dreamed up a gold heist in The Lavender Hill Mob, the Scottish islanders who expropriated a whiskey-laden shipwreck in Tight Little Island, the distant relative who did away with eight wacky heirs (all played by Alec Guinness) to achieve a dukedom in Kind Hearts and Coronets. It has been nearly 50 years since the last of Britain's wickedly funny Ealing comedies was released, but with Saving Grace Blethyn, her costars, and director Nigel Cole ably revive the tradition. What's wrong with giving up orchids and growing a little pot (a lot of pot, actually) to hold off the banker, the repo man, and the auctioneer? The likable, slightly batty Grace, whose philandering clod of a husband has left her with a mountain of debts, is, in the words of one neighbor, simply "carrying on the local tradition of complete and utter contempt for the law." When Grace, whose skill is gardening, and Matthew, her young handyman (The Drew Carey Show's Craig Ferguson), whose skill is charm, construct a hydroponic farm in her greenhouse, complete with grow-lights that illuminate the entire night sky over Port Liac, the villagers not only look the other way; they take a certain delight in the enterprise.

Complications arise, of course. Particularly the tricky matter of getting 20 kilos of dynoweed to market: Innocent Grace hasn't been to big, bad London in five years -- when she careers blithely into back alley and drug den, the results are hilarious.

Director Nigel Cole recaptures the dark wit of the old Ealing comedies with verve. When the middle-aged heroine insists on sampling the marijuana she's nursed back to health, it's almost as though we're inhaling along with her: Certainly, her case of the giggles is catching. Cheech and Chong would love it.

Through it all, Brenda Blethyn is sublime. Best known here for her award-winning performance as the white factory worker who reunited with her black daughter in Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies, she's an actress of subtlety and comic depth. Given the playful tone of Saving Grace, we never worry that she's about to be dismembered by tough London gangsters, but we do become increasingly concerned about her future: Is she in the reefer trade to stay?

The writers answer that question with a fairy tale ending that seems a bit ingenuous and a trifle gooey. But we had such a good time getting there that we can live with it. In short, Just Say Yes.

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More by Bill Gallo

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