The police captain, on a date with a translator in his department, tries to compliment her with an observation about her “paradoxical” nature. She seems so small and fragile, and yet she possesses such extraordinary self-confidence!
The poor guy, whose name is Philippe, doesn’t realize who he’s talking to. Not in the fictional universe of “Mama Weed,” in which the translator, Patience Portefeux, turns out to be something of a criminal mastermind. And certainly not in the world that the rest of us inhabit. Patience is played by Isabelle Huppert, who has that paradox printed on her business card. Philippe’s insight is so laughably obvious that it indicts the director, Jean-Paul Salomé, for lack of imagination.
The list of charges against this watery café au lait of a crime caper is extensive — wearisome ethnic stereotypes, cop-movie clichés, awkward pacing, a labored plot — but the chief transgression is that it wastes the time and talent of one of the supreme screen actors of our time. Huppert’s craft and energy are faultless (Hippolyte Girardot, who plays Philippe, is pretty good too), but the script and the direction undermine her at every turn.
Patience, the child of a Jewish mother (Liliane Rovère, the beloved Arlette of “Call My Agent”) and a long-gone Algerian father, works for the Paris police translating wiretaps and interrogations of Arabic-speaking subjects. A big shipment of hashish is making its way from Morocco, and when she learns that her mother’s caretaker (Farida Ouchani) has a son who is involved in the trafficking, she uses her linguistic skills and innate shrewdness to divert the cargo and save the young man from serious prison time.
In sudden possession of 700 kilos of contraband, Patience decides to unload it. A widow with two daughters, constant money worries and a vague underworld family history as well as connections to law enforcement, she has both the motive and the resources to become, at least temporarily, a drug kingpin — or queenpin, as the case may be.
She adopts the persona of an impatient, entrepreneurial North African matriarch — Mama Weed (“la daronne” in French) — putting on a hijab, garish jewelry and heavy lipstick and enlisting the services of Scotch (Rachid Guellaz) and Chocapic (Mourad Boudaoud), a pair of bumbling small-timers. She also strikes up an alliance with Madame Fo (Jade Nadja Nguyen), the all-seeing, criminal-minded matriarch of the apartment block where Patience is virtually the only non-Chinese resident.
As the rightful owners of the hash close in, along with Philippe and his colleagues, the movie accelerates simultaneously toward melodrama, farce and shoot-em-up without arriving anywhere interesting. There are plenty of so-so movies that Huppert redeems with her presence, but this is just a bad one that she happens to be in.
Not rated. In French, Arabic and Yiddish, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes. In theaters.