The Day the Laughter Died


Constipated English whimsy for the easily tickled, Saving Grace treats its thin, smugly eccentric premise—upstanding small-town widow turns marijuana farmer—as a comic gold mine, when its attempts at humor can be boiled down to three basic concepts:

1. Smoking pot is naughty.

2. Growing pot is naughtier.

3. Smoking pot causes one to regress to a state of preverbal buffoonery.

Inanely upbeat and grindingly obvious, the movie amounts to a checklist of inevitable tee-heeing scenarios that surface on cue, only to wilt instantly before your eyes: the transportive first inhalation, the choked-back mouthful of smoke in the presence of authority figure (here a vicar), the accidental ingestion (daft biddies brew some “tea”), the resultant hunger pangs (stoned daft biddies pig out).

All too game (though mercifully not as game as in Little Voice), Brenda Blethyn plays the titular heroine, whose husband’s death leaves her in debt and in danger of eviction. Egged on by her handyman (Craig Ferguson, the film’s cowriter, already accountable this year for the hairdressers-in-kilts fiasco The Big Tease), Grace turns her attention from orchids to a more profitable crop, converting her greenhouse into a hemp plantation, outfitted with blinding high-intensity lamps that, to the bewilderment of the local yokels, illuminate the night sky like aurora borealis.

Old-school parochial quaintness with a self-congratulatory hint of subversion (though it owes plenty to the original Ealing contraband farce, Alexander MacKendrick’s far superior Whisky Galore!), Saving Grace in the end keeps up appearances, copping out as decisively as you’d expect. It’s clear that under no circumstances will Grace be allowed to cash in her bumper harvest (her financial troubles are instead resolved in a tossed-off fairy-tale epilogue). Directed by Nigel Cole, who deflates his gags even as he’s setting them up, Saving Grace was wildly acclaimed at Sundance this year, where it won the audience award for best foreign film and, in the festival’s costliest transaction, was picked up by Fine Line for $4 million—a chain of events that lends a new dimension to the notion of reefer madness.

More genre exhumation: Psycho Beach Party, based on Charles Busch’s 1987 play, conflates the cheapo surf movie with the cheapo slasher movie, and simply leaves the two ’60s exploitation high-water marks to duke it out—they win, you lose. If nothing else, Busch (who wrote the screenplay) prefigured the current cinematic plot device of choice—the multiple personality—with his Gidgety confection about Chicklet, a troubled tomboy who, when she sets eyes on any circular object, slips into one of her two alternate personas: a finger-snapping homegirl or a dominatrix who may be responsible for a series of gory slayings.

In the stage production, Busch played Chicklet; Robert Lee King’s film loses one of the original jokes by casting biological female Lauren Ambrose in the lead (Busch plays a policewoman who resembles David Duchovny in Twin Peaks). Confronted with this awkward combination of garish set decoration and muffled humor, the viewer is left to ponder the number of levels on which this counts as a pointless exercise—a parody of parodic movies, a deconstruction of transparent genres, a self-negatingly knowing example of camp . . .

Purposeful with a vengeance, Margaret Cho’s one-woman show belongs to the environmentally friendly branch of celebrity self-exploitation that repackages gruesome showbiz-carnage details as cathartic, inspirational, celebratory confessionals—therapeutic and rehabilitative in one fell swoop. Relying heavily on Cho’s twin specialties—race and fag-haggery (she’s better on the former than the latter)—and on detailed accounts of the sleazy network games that thwarted her 1995 sitcom, All-American Girl, the no-frills stand-up movie I’m the One That I Want (or I Will Survive, or I Am What I Am) has a respectable laugh-to-cringe ratio. But Cho’s tendency to attenuate jokes (she repeats punch lines and derails them with bouts of face-pulling) gets in the way of some of her wittiest material, and the time-outs from wisecracking—invariably, to impart a simplistic self-esteem lesson or two—feature the most awkward silences you’re likely to endure in a comedy routine.