A trash-talking French granny gradually warms to the world, thanks to the mellowing effects of marijuana in “Paulette.” Mind you, the bitter old spinster never smokes the stuff herself, but instead becomes the neighborhood’s unlikeliest new dealer in this French box office sensation, which finally arrives Stateside fully two years after the death of its leading lady, Bernadette Lafont. While the film is too simple-minded to take seriously, the pleasure of seeing an upstanding actress like Lafont (a New Wave fixture who made nine films with Claude Chabrol) deliver such a surprising role at the end of her career should work in any language — though the right American audience would sooner see it sans subtitles, and ideally with someone like Julie Andrews or Anne Bancroft in the role.
Following a home-movie opening-credits sequence that recalls happier days in Paulette’s life, the script immediately makes clear that the once-happy baker has hardened into an unpleasant old hag — one with an especially nasty view toward foreigners, which she unloads upon her (black) priest during confession. It doesn’t help the cranky old lady’s disposition that she’s barely able to get by on her meager pension: Paulette feels utterly helpless as the bank repossesses her furniture, while the punks in her building get rich slinging hash in the courtyard.
But Paulette’s situation swiftly changes when a brick of marijuana literally lands in her lap. Recognizing the opportunity, she goes to the local dealer, Vito (), and demands in. “Who’ll suspect me?” she asks — and the old bag has a point: For most of the movie, Paulette clomps around in a ratty green raincoat, her red headscarf pulled tight over graying hair. The local cops know there’s illegal activity in her building, but they’re so blinded by their own prejudices that they can’t bring themselves to suspect her, even when their drug-sniffing dog goes crazy over Paulette’s pot-stuffed shopping bag.
Believe it or not, the basic premise — the old lady who supplemented her income selling dope — came from an actual news story, which one of director Jerome Enrico’s students brought to the screenwriting class he teaches at Paris’ ESEC film school. Enrico shares credit on the resulting script with three students, yielding an irreverent comedy whose septuagenarian antihero appeals directly to young audiences (one of the reasons “Paulette” seems so ill-suited for American theatrical release, since its populist sensibility would play better in megaplexes than to the gray arthouse crowd).
In the end, “Paulette” looks and feels every bit as professional as an American studio laffer, right down to its skewed fairy-tale sensibility, evident in everything from Paulette’s pot-infused baked goods (such photogenic goodies as “space cakes” and “granny junkie meringues”) to Michel Ochowiak’s upbeat marching-band score. Though the local dealers don’t appreciate her infringing on their turf, no one seems to mind her career choice, to the extent that Paulette’s card-dealing friends (Carmen Maura, Dominique Lavanant and Francoise Bertin, who steals scenes as an Alzheimer’s-stricken old biddy) are quick to enlist when she needs help in the kitchen.
The movies traditionally hold such a gentle view of the elderly that it’s an easy gimmick to put overtly offensive comments in their mouths (from Lily Tomlin’s upcoming “Grandma” to “Trainwreck’s” retirement-home diatribes, the schtick seldom fails to amuse). Unfortunately, in real life, bigots tend not to soften, but rather grow increasingly bitter with time, to the extent that most American audiences can probably think of an oldster who spews Paulette’s brand of racist barbs (the U.S. release translates her inappropriate nicknames for her black son-in-law as “jigaboo” and “darkie”).
Stateside, such off-color attitudes should have died on the Civil Rights battlefield, though immigration issues continue to stoke these race- and religion-based prejudices in Europe today. The movie tries to have it both ways, giving non-P.C. audiences a chance to laugh at what should never be said, even as it celebrates Paulette’s unlikely enlightenment (by the end, she’s made up with her mixed-race grandson and actually decides to become what she dislikes most: an immigrant).
Politics aside, however, the movie delivers on the inspiration of its premise, featuring just the sort of laughs one hopes for: Even funnier than the sight of angry grannies armed with rolling pins is a Tarantino-worthy Mexican standoff between Paulette’s gang and Vito’s goons. It’s a shame that her crabby commentary isn’t witty in and of itself, rather than merely being spiteful, though that’s exactly what “Paulette” is selling: a toke of her disrespect, as it were.