Mama Weed (PG13)
Starring Isabelle Huppert, Hippolyte Girardot, Farida Ouchani
Directed by Jean-Paul Salomé
Veteran French actress Isabelle Huppert is so good at playing cold and amoral characters in her many films that you're on her side even when she is blatantly breaking the law as an accidental drug dealer here.
Which makes this funny, patently absurd but quirkily enjoyable French crime dramedy the perfect vehicle for her consummately naughty craft.
I mean, she disguises herself as a Muslim woman dragging big bags of dope openly along the streets and squares of Paris like a travelling salesperson. How nuts is this, right?
Basically, Mama Weed is what Breaking Bad on TV would've turned into if it was made into a mischievous big-mama-dealer comedy with funding stolen from a drug cartel.
Huppert plays Patience Portefeux, an employee in the French police force with an unusual, indispensable and as it turns out, highly lucrative talent. She's an interpreter for the narcotics unit that's trying to nail a slippery Moroccan drug gang operating in the heart of Paris.
The lady is so skilled in the Arabic language — her parents came from French Algeria — that she's a very efficient translator for the linguistically-challenged police when they nab Arab-speaking criminals.
She's such an unlikely white woman who's so proficient in the foreign language that she also texts in Arabic which even young Franco-cised Arab hoodlums can't read. Huppert, by the way, apparently spent months learning to speak Arabic for this role.
Patience follows her squad on raids, participates in interrogations — “He says f*** you, where's my lawyer?” — and even more impressively, she eavesdrops blithely without batting an eyelid on the unsuspecting Arab dudes as the cops wiretap their conversations.
Here's the thing. This flick will not win the Moroccan Oscar for its shifty portrayals of North Africans. But neither would it win the French Police Oscar since those fellas are pictured as being pretty imbecilic too.
Both sides are duped as equally and as foolishly as Trump supporters by the imperious Patience who's smarter than everybody here. Hence, making her most wanted by both the good guys and the gun-toting baddies. “There's a lady running a hash start-up in Paris,” barks one exasperated cop despite his target sitting in hilarious plain sight right in front of him in the police HQ.
Patience transcribes the chatty drivel she overhears word for word, line by line by reporting what she learns to her superiors. And since she's the only one in her clueless team who knows exactly what's going on, that's a genuine super power which becomes very vital to her burgeoning crime spree.
She uses the insider info to stay one step ahead by hiding important details as “conversation of no relevance to current investigation” without anybody in her unit being the wiser. Kinda like the way you tell your wife the phone call is from a friend when it's actually from your mistress.
It reminds you of that Oscar-winning film, The Lives Of Others (2006), about the secretive monitoring of citizens in East Germany by nefarious government agents. But a lot less sinister with a lot more Gallic humour and panache. Especially from the peachy Huppert who's a teflon-coated, cool-as-a-cucumber hoot to watch throughout the show despite doing something massively illegal, oh, maybe about 50 times.
Although, of course, initially, she isn't so sunny since her job sucks, her debt-ridden life feels worse and her prospects as a middle-aged worker with an ailing mum in an expensive old folks home are even worse.
“It's not work, it's existential, I worry about my future,” Patience tells her boss and secret lover, the honest straight-arrow leader of her team, police chief Philippe (Hippolyte Girardot).
The man plays everything by the book and still believes in something righteous called the law. While she, the daughter of parents who bent the rules when they were struggling in the early days, doesn’t really believe in ironclad rigidity. Her folks, she tells her law-enforcement beau, dealt in “not the kind of business you would have approved of”.
Man, don’t you just love the French? Only they can combine work, life, love and crime in such delicious flair and irony.
While surveilling the transportation of a ginormous haul of drugs in a truck on the highway, Patience finds out that the driver is the son of the kind Arab woman who’s looking after her sick mum in the aged home. Instantly, her disobedient instincts kick in as she feels a kindred need to thwart the cops to help her friend and, what the heck, cut herself in on an irresistibly good deal since those crooks she spies on every day have such fun living the lawless high life in their swanky yachts.
Manipulating the cop car chase into stealing the gigantic stash for herself with the help of a very handy drug-sniffing police dog, she proceeds to hide the dope and carve it up into batches to sell to two bungling small-time street dealers — codenamed Scotch and Cocoa Puff — via an insanely brazen strategy.
Patience, donning a “crossover hijab” and severely oversized sunglasses looking like Shirley MacLaine from a 1960s bazaar, happily peddles the poison as though she’s the Avon Lady of hash. “If you take more, I'll give you a discount,” she chirps nonchalantly as she trafficks with huge luggages across actual traffic in the busy streets.
From here on, this flick becomes one big comical joyride of dumb-cats-and-clever-mouse, leaving our amazed mouths opened wide as Patience stays ahead of both the fumbling fuzz and the furious felons whose stash she has cashed. It's a sheer delight, I tell you, to see the adorable Huppert do her gaily Gallic thing despite knowing that if this was in Singapore, she'd be executed surely about 100 times over.
Now I'm not going to spoil the kicks by giving away the plot because the surprises of this movie — directed by Jean Paul-Salome (Arsene Lupin) based on a novel by Hannelore Cayre — as it twists and turns are what makes it so entertaining.
I have to say though that depending on how you look at it, the Chinese have a funny, stereotypical part to play in the dope biz here too. Patience's accidental accomplice is her landlady, a Chinese woman, Mrs Fo (Nadya Nguyen), from hard-living Wenzhou, who's as comfy at tai chi as she is with guns and all things naughty.
“Talk doesn't cook rice,” she explains to Patience as she seeks a cut of the action.
Man, these two impish East-West bad gals, I tell you, makes the fun here seem, well, almost criminal. (***1/2)
Photo: Guy Ferrandis