Review: Isabelle Huppert is the Godmother in amusing French crime story ‘Mama Weed’
Dialing back on the icy intensity that has marked many of her memorable roles, the incomparable Isabelle Huppert seizes on the opportunity to let down her hair, or at least pull it back under a hijab in order to moonlight as a Moroccan drug dealer in the comedic crime thriller “Mama Weed.”
Known as “La Daronne” (The Godmother) in its original French release, where the entertaining film shares its name with the bestselling novel by Hannelore Cayre, the multicultural caper nevertheless provides Huppert with ample substance.
A widowed, underpaid French Arabic translator for the Paris police narcotics unit, Patience Portefeux (Huppert) finds herself at a crossroads, seeking something more exciting than being tethered to a pair of headphones monitoring phone conversations among the city’s biggest drug dealers.
At least it serves as a diversion between visits to her ailing, Yiddish-speaking mother (Liliane Rovère) at the extended-care home where she’s several months behind in paying for her lodging.
But when Patience discovers that one of those involved in an upcoming shipment of hashish is the son of her mother’s sympathetic caregiver (Farida Ouchani), she becomes personally involved, alerting the woman to impending police intervention.
Of course, why stop there, when somewhere in Paris, there’s a hastily discarded, hidden stash, 1½ tons of hash just waiting for someone to move it?
Armed with swaths of designer scarves, a burner phone, a bank note counter and a drug-sniffing dog named DNA whom she rescues from the shelter, Patience emerges in the enigmatic guise of the soon-to-be-dubbed La Daronne, hooking up with a pair of low-level dealers named Scotch and Cocoa Puff.
While that wild setup suggests the sort of subsequent broadly etched payoff one would likely find in the inevitable Hollywood remake, writer-director Jean-Paul Salomé manages to keep it all admirably contained, preferring to ease into the comedic elements when required rather than weaving them throughout.
It’s an approach that gives Huppert ample time to root her character’s decisions in a semblance of believability, especially when it is later revealed that there’s more than a trace of larceny in her own family’s DNA.
The film injects a refreshing dose of estrogen into the male-dominated milieu of the classic French export known as the “policier,” both in the form of Huppert’s fiercely independent character and that of the exquisite Rovère (seen in the acclaimed Netflix comedy series “Call My Agent!”), who attributes her daughter’s name to the fact that she carried her for 10 months.
Also contributing to all that female empowerment is Vietnamese actress Jade Nadja Nguyen as an enigmatic Chinese neighbor, Madame Fo, who ultimately gives Patience some valuable tips pertaining to the fine art of money laundering.
Although Salomé’s lower-key approach to the material occasionally creates the sense that moments of ripe comedy have been left untapped, as well as a low-key ending that might have benefited from a final twist, there’s plenty to appreciate.
As Huppert’s career choices go, “Mama Weed” serves as a perfectly satisfying amuse-bouche before she dives back into the meatier stuff.
In French, Arabic and Yiddish with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: Starts July 16, the Landmark Westwood, Los Angeles; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena
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