The Weed Isn’t What Makes ‘Smiley Face’ the Perfect Stoner Movie
Take a walk through the annals of stoner movie history and patterns of commonalities start to emerge. The disreputable subgenre loves the buddy dynamic — every Harold needs his Kumar, every Method Man his Redman, every Cheech his Chong — and certain tropes crop up across the canon like, uh, weeds – the pair of heroes embarking on a bleary-eyed adventure with decidedly low stakes, like copping an eighth or getting a burger. Inexplicable celebrities tend to make cameos, viewers can count on at least one run-in with the long arm of the law, and nearly-pornographic weed-consumption montages abound.
But a more disheartening element unites most stoner movies: by and large, they’re pretty terrible. The comedy skews towards the lowest common denominator, mining laughs from gross-out gags, sexual mischief, and simplistic stereotypes. # Perhaps the filmmakers responsible for such half-baked projects (I solemnly swear to include no more than two dozen marijuana puns in this essay) feel no impetus to have their work do or be more — after all, it’s not as if their intended audience is exactly firing on all cylinders, either — but irregardless of a dampened capacity for thoughtful analysis, super-high people deserve stoner flicks that adhere to some standard of quality.
Mercifully, this world has Smiley Face.
In many ways, Smiley Face is not radically different from the films enumerated above. Anna Faris, comedy’s most frequently mishandled talent, stars as wasteoid actress Jane, whose ordinary day of errands — she’s gotta crush an audition, hit the cash machine, and square up with her dealer — becomes a harrowing ordeal after she unknowingly ingests a dozen cupcakes packing a knockout wallop of THC. Like Harold and Kumar’s epic sojourn to White Castle, Smiley Face then stands helplessly by as a debilitatingly stoned doofus expends every ounce of humanly available effort to complete simple tasks and fails spectacularly.
But director Gregg Araki, worshipped in cult-cinema circles for campy delights The Doom Generation and Kaboom as well as heartfelt queer melodramas like Mysterious Skin and Totally Fucked Up, knows what he’s doing in a way that many stoner helmers do not. Araki recognizes that vast shimmering waves of marijuana do not a true stoner comedy make; the greatest head-flicks warp their formal fabric to replicate and toy with the mental interiority of actually being paralyzingly stoned. The top-tier stoner flicks are not the ones about getting high, but the ones that recreate the experience thereof. You don’t have to get high to watch Smiley Face; the camerawork and editing will take care of that for you.
However, as my esteemed colleague Vikram Murthi has noted, drug use has such a personal and subjective effect on the mind that there’s no single cut-and-dried method of imitating it, and indeed, with Smiley Face, Araki takes an approach akin to throwing a pot of spaghetti at the wall and using what sticks, with bizarro aesthetic choices and kooky visual flourishes abounding.
For starters, the film begins in medias res, with Jane sitting atop a ferris wheel with a copy of The Communist Manifesto tucked underneath her arm, no more comprehending of the situation than the audience that’s just been dumped into it. The sonorous tones of Roscoe Lee Browne appear in voiceover to deliver an opening narration about how we got here, what it all means, yadda yadda yadda. Except Jane hears him through the fourth wall, recognizes Roscoe, and engages him in the specific strain of overly casual, exceedingly pleasant conversation familiar to stoners.
Then there’s the scene when Jane eats the fateful cupcakes. Araki plays the first bite straight, but as the cupcakes serve only to exacerbate Jane’s nasty case of the munchies, Araki speeds up the footage until Jane’s ravenous consumption looks like something out of a Benny Hill cartoon. Not all of them work, but they’re all set to the goal conveying the shag-carpeted mental interiority of somebody ten-out-of-ten high; when Jane attempts to leave her house by getting behind the wheel of a car, only to be bombarded with the imagined screams of terrorized crowds, it’s the perfect representation of paranoia.
But if Smiley Face simply took a “you had to be there” attitude towards its portrayal of marijuana’s effects, it’d effectively exclude a huge population of viewers. Instead, Araki brings everyone along for the trip by using unorthodox editing strategies to create a pervasive hazy mood throughout the film (In layman’s terms, the scenes in Smiley Face don’t quite fit together as most films’ do). Jane will sometimes appear in a new location with no understanding of how she got there. Characters enter and exit the film with minimal context, just there until they aren’t. Araki intends this lack of cohesion to create a disorienting effect, and that’s the most effective method of placing a sober viewer in Jane’s not-quite-there mindset. In a deliberate way, Araki moves in dreams.
And as we learned from the scene in Inception where Leo DiCaprio and Ellen Page chat at a café while stuff explodes all around them, movies operate under the logic of dreams.
As Leo’s Cobb points out, the dreamer never bothers to imagine the parts where they’re driving from one location to another, or using the bathroom, etc etc. Inessential parts get snipped out, and films do the same thing. Editing’s an invisible art, its objective to make the gaps between shots and scenes feel as natural and unobtrusive as possible. Smiley Face readily exposes the disconnect that editing covers up, getting nice and comfortable in the awkward lacunae between point A and point B; the result is an immediate and visceral replication of smoke’s ability to fog memory and dull mental sharpness. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice pulled this same trick (with more effectiveness, arguably) just last year. #
But Smiley Face has a secret weapon no other stoner film can claim. Anna Faris takes what could’ve been a slight role and commits to it with a totality bordering on pathological. Playing stoned isn’t rocket science — perfect a throaty giggle, set eyes to maximum squint, speak very slowly — but Faris still manages to find humor warped brilliance in Jane.
The high point of the film comes when Jane’s loopy odyssey brings her to a meat-processing plant. While on a tour of the factory floor with workers played by Danny Trejo and John Cho (Harold himself, in the flesh!), Jane’s accosted by the foreman. Cornered, Jane does the only reasonable thing and launches into an epic Marxist diatribe on the indignities of labor and the cruel injustice of the one percent:
Faris makes mince meat out of that monologue, stretching the words “generous benefit package” until they encapsulate the whole of corporate-jargon absurdity.
Jane’s functional understanding of the tenets of communism is something of a Chekhov’s gun in the film, too. In an earlier conversation with her dealer, who is inexplicably played by The O.C.’s Adam Brody in a dreadlock wig, they get into the merits and drawbacks of laissez-faire capitalism. After a surprisingly cogent critique of America’s existing financial outlay and the ethics of drug dealing, Jane reveals that she studied economics in college. Her dealer looks at the ambition-free slacker and the mighty bong atop her table, and asks what happened. Faris’ deadpan answer is perfect, transcendent, absolutely flawless: “Economics didn’t really work out.”
Smiley Face’s main character is the film itself in microcosm — goofy, aimless, and secretly genius#. Araki has made more serious films than Smiley Face, but none that has as much delirious fun. It’s a trip you can take at any time in any mental state, with gags that’ll still make you laugh when you get back.
It brings to mind the old quote attributed to Salvador Dali: Smiley Face isn’t about drugs, it is drugs.
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