There’s a long and underwhelming tradition of marijuana-fueled comedies, some overt, others less so. Even as the subgenre ages, however, it’s impossible to note the lowered aspirations of filmmakers each time out, as “pot” comedy has become part of a genre where increasingly timid filmmakers merely check off boxes in lieu of embracing the kind of irreverence that comes with the use of controlled substances. By the self-consciously layered title, you can guess where “High School” falls on this spectrum.
Matt Bush stars as high school valedictorian candidate Henry, a straight-arrow who is now eyeing colleges as his next step into a fruitful adult life. A chance encounter reunites him with classmate Travis (Sean Marquette), a former pre-pubescent friend that clean-cut Henry barely, condescendingly, recognizes. This rasta-inspired slacker, with wool cap and pockets loaded with weed, opts to reach out to his former friend after a perceived slight. With Henry’s reluctant shoulder-slumping acceptance, it feels as if this is the first time anyone’s tried to make friends with him.
This also means that, in a show of what he must consider legendary bromanship, Travis offers Henry a hit of sticky icky. The joke of this violation of Henry’s standards is that all of his Scared Straight fears have come true — he learns of a sudden, end-of-year crackdown on drug users presided over by hopeless square Principal Gordon, wherein a school-wide drug test is initiated, with those who fail being expelled.
Gordon, with a sneer and a bad toupee, is played by “The Shield” star Michael Chiklis as an unrepentantly pretentious windbag who bloviates from his desk about the terrors of rock music and how free love is responsible for a sudden lawlessness in youth. Played by Mr. Chiklis with an affected accent that suggests a forced sense of culture, it’s not hard to see shades of Chiklis’ Vic Mackey. Gordon sees himself as a societal watchman, like Mackey fooled that he’s somehow on the side of the angels while also allowing for a few indulgences (in this case a crude flirtation with his secretary). Chiklis questionably opts to play this character as a cartoon, but it’s a solid base for an interesting antagonist.
Unfortunately, “High School” is less interested in the conflict between the pot-smoking libertines of modern day and the conservative base in power than it is with repeated hijinks of diminishing returns. Henry seems like a perceptive type — Bush infuses “dork roles” in both this and “Piranha 3DD” with a surprising amount of intelligence — but he freaks out and surrenders to Travis’ so-far-gone logic, in which failure simply means another day of a miserable life at the bottom rung of the high school caste system, and not the loss of a major academic career.
Travis’ can’t-fail plan ends up being the biggest of Hail Marys, a plot to smoke up the entire school so that not a single drug test is passed. This involves brownies (because no schools feature kids trying to watch their weight, or children with lactose intolerance), but it will also involve an improbable amount of pot that can only be secured from one source: local madman Psycho Ed (Adrien Brody, because ha… ha?), another rasta-inspired white man who grows weed out of his ears and has a dangerous tweaker’s mentality that suggests a history of corpse disposal.
If you’re stealing pot from Psycho Ed, it probably isn’t any normal marijuana. And so because these movies can never settle for simply impairing characters’ judgment and slowing them down, there has to be Super Weed. Because of the strength of this strand, the film veers into off-brand parody as characters become utter buffoons who occasionally hallucinate, a classic marijuana movie mistake, since pot will never make you conjure up visual discrepancies. But oh yes, Super Weed. Whatever.
Because each character begins acting out (including a teaching staff made of character actor vets like Yeardley Smith and Curtis Armstrong, among others) and others are already exaggerated jokes (Adhir Kalyan, as valedictorian competition by way of Bond villain), its impossible to ground “High School” in any sort of reality. But the film, which relies on goofy happenstance and jokey caricature, has no central joke to tell, its main conflicts limp (Psycho Ed randomly drifts in and out of the narrative, likely befitting busy Brody’s schedule), its main message lost behind a haze of pot smoke. This is enough, surely, for a cheap late nineties Fox sitcom, but once the runtime surpasses the stoner-friendly 85 minute mark, “High School” trudges on towards a big finish finale determined to get all principals in the same place at once, the better to provide an easy resolution to its sprawling mess of a narrative. It’s as over-complex as it is under-thought, very much like listening to a moderately smart person continue to talk and toke. For the undiscerning pot movie connoisseur, however, it’ll probably do. [C-]