Brit comedy too much of a puff piece

Movie: Saving Grace

Our Rating: 2.50

Remember that old joke about the hopelessly unhip matron who giggles uncontrollably after she tries pot for the first time? Or how about the two old ladies who unwittingly sip cups of marijuana-spiked tea, giggle uncontrollably and attack mounds of cereal and junk food in order to sate their suddenly massive appetites? Then there's the wise guy sneaking a toke in a public place, who takes a puff and is forced to hold it in, grinning pleasantly until an unexpected guest walks away. He nearly chokes when finally expelling the sweet-smelling smoke.

"Saving Grace," a trifling British import that's far more conventional than it wants to be, employs all the above clichéd scenarios in service of a series of what could have been grand comic payoffs -- maybe 30 years ago. In this era of pill-popping ravers and heroin chic, the reefer-madness routine seems quaint at best and an out-of-sync curio at worst. Nigel Cole, a former television director, and screenwriter Craig Ferguson ("The Big Tease"), a co-star of television's "The Drew Carey Show," may have been going for something slightly edgy. They wound up with something inoffensive but irrelevant.

The filmmakers also ought to be blamed for relying too heavily on the alleged charm factor that comes with stuffing a British, Scottish, Irish or Welsh village full of offbeat eccentrics, a la "Waking Ned Devine," "The Full Monty," "The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain" and, the classiest of the bunch, "Local Hero."

Cole's movie, set in picturesque Cornwall on the English coast, has its share of likeably offbeat characters. There's a cheery vicar (Leslie Phillips) fond of watching Christopher Lee vampire flicks with the sound cranked up; an amiable constable (Ken Campbell) willing to pass over minor transgressions of the law; two giddy biddies (Phyllida Law and Linda Kerr Scott) in charge of the local general store; a good-time physician (Martin Clunes); a dim fellow (Tristan Sturrock) who's sure he's seeing signs of the Apocalypse; and a pub full of happily besotted patrons.

All those folks are quick to offer tea and sympathy to Grace (Brenda Blethyn of "Little Voice" and "Secrets and Lies"), the recently widowed owner of a gorgeous 300-year-old home and garden just outside of town. Her husband died in a freakish accident, but even worse, he left his spouse with a mountain of debt.

Unless Grace does something drastic, she's sure to lose her estate. The solution, provided by her kindhearted young groundskeeper, Matthew (Ferguson), is accepted in record time: Grace, she of the regionally applauded green thumb, will nurse his wilted pot plants back to health and utilize the science of hydroponics to create a crop sure to generate the cash she needs.

Naturally, the plan gets complicated, and the public spectacle created when the skies above Grace's property are lit up by high-intensity lamps doesn't help matters. The stickiest problem for the two partners is how to profitably dispose of the crop. It's a lot of fun watching Grace wander the streets of Notting Hill, dressed in her retro white pantsuit, chatting up punkers, Rasta men, shaggy-haired youths -- anyone who might have a line on a drug dealer.

Grace eventually does make an underworld connection, with menacing, perhaps even dangerous Frenchman Jacques Chevalier (Tcheky Karyo of "The Patriot"). But the filmmakers undercut the potency of that relationship with a slapstick showdown and a save-the-day finale that amounts to a real cop-out. Why follow through with something inventive when it's simpler to tack on a fantasy ending?

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