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Genre of English underdog comedies wilts with Greenfingers

A group of tough but likable convicts at an English minimum-security prison embark on an unlikely project that restores their dignity and zest for life. Do they choreograph a striptease number to Donna Summer songs? Nope. Make a fortune off a dead Irishman's lottery ticket? Uh-uh. Peddle homegrown marijuana to senior citizens? No, but you're getting warmer.

Instead, the hardened criminals of Greenfingers find redemption and personal fulfillment in gardening. Greenfingers is the latest in a weed-like outbreak of "underdog" comedies from the British Isles, in which working-class blokes defy convention in the name of respect or a living wage. The genre's seen diminishing returns since the success of The Full Monty, with Greenfingers proving the most strained and lackluster of the lot.

Writer-director Joel Hershman was inspired by "Free to Grow Bluebells in England," a New York Times article about British prison gardens. The film begins with ex-con Colin Briggs (Clive Owen) flagrantly stealing a floral arrangement, knowing full well he's violating his parole and heading back to the big house.

Flashing back, the film finds Briggs a withdrawn, alienated prisoner whose good behavior gets him transferred to Edgefield, an "open" prison in the Cotswolds. Briggs shows no interest in his work assignments or his elderly, sickly roommate, Fergus (Waking Ned Devine's David Kelly, eyes twinkling in overtime). But Fergus manages to draw Briggs out by giving him viola seeds for Christmas.

When the young plants bloom, Briggs becomes interested in gardening despite himself. The reform-minded warden (Warren Clarke) assigns some bullying inmates to help Briggs and Fergus, and soon enough the mismatched group of murderers and thieves are swapping tips about "weed wands" and arguing about which blossom to plant: "Who said anything about daffodils?" one sputters.

The program's unlikely success gets attention from a mainstream source: Georgina Woodhouse (Helen Mirren), a horticultural celebrity (remember, this is England). A fussy but formidable figure, Georgina has floral patterns apparently on every article of clothing and even named her comely daughter Primrose (Natasha Little). Impressed by the convicts' work, she enlists their aid in other landscaping projects, while Primrose and Briggs begin falling for each other.

In true Rocky fashion, Georgina offers to sponsor the inmates in the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, the largest outdoor garden event in the world. On learning of their entry, the garden officials tut-tut at the idea of including uncouth prisoners. Though we're supposed to disdain the view of such effete swells, they have a stronger point than Greenfingers allows them. A majority of the plant-happy inmates are literally killers, yet the film consistently regards them through rose-colored glasses.

There's a seed of a significant theme here, involving the idea that a man who has taken a life now gets the chance to cultivate one, and occasionally the film addresses it head on, as when Briggs admits to his parole board that he's found a new appreciation for nature. But Greenfingers balks at digging any deeper than that, insisting on a sunny view of potentially stormy conflicts. Instead of acknowledging the families of the convicts' victims, Hershman gives us a planting montage set, shamelessly, to Tears for Fears' "Sowing the Seeds of Love."

Hershman's script fails a promising cast. In Croupier and, to a lesser extent, BMW's online commercials, Clive Owen has established himself as one of cinema's coolest customers. His cagey, James Dean quality survives the film unscathed, even when he's required to give pep talks to seedlings. And while Helen Mirren usually plays tightly wound professionals, like her "Prime Suspect" detective, it's fun seeing her give a flighty, comic performance in the kind of role that usually goes to Brenda Blethyn.

Clarke and Fogerty look like genuinely mean blokes, making their interest in gardening amusingly incongruous, but that's virtually all the movie requires of the supporting characters. Only rarely does Hershman put a clever twist in his premise, as when a prison honcho insists that the inmates arrange a rock garden for the flower show.

Greenfingers is something of a hybrid, as Hershman hails from Brooklyn by way of Los Angeles, but it lives down to a worsening standard of English comedies. Perhaps the underdog comedy reflects some aspect of the modern English character: Though they've lost their empire, they've still got their spirit. But Greenfingers simply affirms that England's cinematic model is now closer to The Bad News Bears than Merchant/Ivory.

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