We don’t deserve our screen legends, and sometimes neither do their films. Isabelle Huppert is one of our greatest, spanning decades with indelible performances and never being less than compelling, even in the clunkers that pock her filmography. Stars as prolific and seemingly without a vacation as Huppert aren’t without such forgivable misfires, but rare are the ones who can either rise above, or sometimes even elevate, the weak films around them. Huppert sadly returns with another, the inconsistent and mostly bland thriller Mama Weed. Directed by Jean-Paul Salomé, the film tinges a crime story with bits of farce and tepid social observation for a character study of one woman’s natural inclination towards criminality.
Huppert stars as police interpreter Patience, specializing in Arabic and helping the French forces track down a massive transport of hash. With the mounting costs of keeping her mother in assistive care and living alone in her flat, Patience is drawn into the deal when she discovers one of the drivers is the son of her mother’s most trusted nurse. There is an element of compassion that first causes her to intervene, but it’s her family criminal history that quickly takes over and compels her to commandeer the stash for her our profit. The ensuing plot pits Patience in the crosshairs of the authorities, her buyers, and her building manager, all adorned in fabulous costumes and nostalgic for her family boat. The film is largely silly, but stays grounded in Huppert’s winning performance, relying on her tonal perfection to find its verve.
Instead of being built around Huppert’s screen persona, the film feels moreso like it lucked into her, as if it’s caught unprepared for how to harness her abilities. As the screen legend overflows with seeming delight to have fun with such daffy material, Salomé is all too happy to fall back and allow her energy to carry the film. And yet Mama Weed isn’t a star vehicle, exactly. It’s a genre exercise, a lowkey thriller comedy that needs a confident guide to hone the punches in its stars wit and the turns of the plot. This film is too casual with its actress, too narratively basic; it finds insight on the specialness of her presence by chance rather than by design. You can understand a director for giving Huppert’s charm free reign, but any talent deserves to be met halfway.
Yet Huppert is still herself, one of the single greatest living performers. If the film is lazy about developing Patience’s innate taste and adeptness for a life of crime, Huppert imbues those traits with a sly sense of inevitability, dryly shading the film’s humor to a more ironic effect than the screenplay’s obvious bits. Huppert’s performance is smart and pitch perfect against the film’s more broad impulses, complicating what could have been a dull antihero with a more subtle sense of anarchy.
Mama Weed is a troublesome diversion with many of the crime genre’s problematic cliches (of course, it is casually racist and too avoiding towards the systemic issues of policing) dampening its ability to entertain. Huppert has a decent time with herself, enough to maybe make us forget the film’s problems in short stretches, certainly enough to make us willingly forfeit the film’s plausibility. But a memorable, cut-above romp this is not.