This week marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Richard Linklater‘s seminal “Dazed and Confused,” a movie that celebrated that sweet spot in between adolescence and adulthood, the super sounds of the ’70s, and of course, marijuana. In “Dazed and Confused,” classic rites-of-passage are dutifully dramatized, from ritualized hazing to awkward first encounters with girls, but pot is something else—it’s symbolic of taking a stand, of not playing by The Man’s rules. It’s also something that makes any number of the characters giggle uncontrollably. There’s something beautiful, transcendent almost, about the weed-smoking in “Dazed and Confused,” especially as the movie concludes with a sunrise toke on the high school football field. It also got us to thinking about ten of the very best, like, stoner movies man!
Stoner movies have to walk a finer tonal line than you give them credit for, since they have to appeal to both the straightlaced and the chemically cloudy and they seemingly have to be endlessly rewatchable. You know, for stoners. There are certain tenets that almost all of them have to include: a sequence where the pot makes them paranoid (or gives them shoddily visualized hallucinations), a tribute to the ever-present munchies, and of course, a vow (whether heartfelt or not) to quit the sticky icky for good.
We also decided to only include movies where marijuana is a crucial part of the story. Movies that use pot as tangential plot devices, like, say, Danny Boyle‘s “The Beach” or Guy Ritchie‘s “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” (or, bizarrely, the new “Friday the 13th” remake from 2009), were purposefully left off the list. Instead we wanted to focus on the stoner movies that are really stoner movies. So sit back, relax, and blaze up. This piece is best read through a foggy haze of bong smoke.
You have to admire, at the very least, the charmingly low stakes of “Friday“: it’s a movie about a couple of stoners (Ice Cube and a pre-“Rush Hour” Chris Tucker) who have to come up with $200 (!) or they’re going to get their ass kicked. That’s pretty much it. Instead of getting hung up on things like plot and character motivation, of course, the movie instead luxuriates in the good vibes associated with two friends hanging out and smoking weed on the porch. The movie crackles with wonderfully hangdog dialogue, occasionally delivered in Tucker’s machine gun rattle (“Man… You ain’t got no job… you ain’t got shit to do!”) An unlikely franchise-starter, “Friday” was followed by two sequels (neither starred Tucker) and a short-lived animated series, but more importantly established Ice Cube as an audience-friendly comedic presence after the rapper made a dramatic splash in John Singleton‘s “Boyz N the Hood.” It also established a subgenre of the “urban” stoner movie which has been photocopied endlessly in the years since but, like questionable marijuana, has also been diluted and infused with dodgy additives.
“Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle” (2004)
One credit to this particular subgenre is that movies about toking up frequently pack the casts with characters and actors of diverse ethnic backgrounds. Which is why when Danny Leiner introduced the world to high-strung Harold and laid-back pal Kumar, the world collectively accepted bit-part actors John Cho and Kal Penn as just another couple of bud buddies, stretching improbably through three movies. The first picture is a silly, inspired take on cottonmouth, finding the two stoners having a late night pow-wow and immediately needing to feed their faces, heading out for a colorful odyssey to the famous restaurant of the title. Along the way, a few detours lead them to come face to face with Neil Patrick Harris, who subtly reinvented his career by playing a version of himself as a sex-obsessed pothead trafficking on his then-minimal fame as “Doogie Howser, M.D.” “Harold And Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay” takes the story into the direction of an all-out road picture, with the duo running afoul of the Bush administration’s stodgy policies, represented by a rogue NSA agent played with insane glee by Rob Corddry. Finally, “A Very Harold And Kumar Christmas” seems to exist only for the sake of lowbrow 3D comedy, and on that level, it delivers: there’s nothing negative to say about a stupid, gimmicky holiday-themed pot comedy that actively mocks the fact that it’s being presented in 3D. In fact, this holiday treat might be the very best of the bunch. And not just because of the amazingly hallucinogenic stop-motion animated sequence.
“Dude Where’s My Car?” (2000)
It’s not the destination but the journey, is a maxim that can easily be applied to the dopey but surprisingly sweet “Dude Where’s My Car?” whose title pretty much tells you the entire plot of the movie. When two best bud potheads, Jesse (Ashton Kutcher) and Chester (Seann William Scott) wake up with no memory of what happened the day before, that’s just the start of a surreal adventure that involves pudding, Chinese take out, the Continuum Transfunctioner, five super hot alien babes, all while they have to please their girlfriends, played by Jennifer Garner and Marla Sokoloff. So not only do they have to save the universe and of course find the car, they have to not be “sucky boyfriends.” In retrospect, perhaps the most remarkable thing about ‘Dude’ is how clean it is, especially compared to the other movies on this list. The PG-13 rated movie has no nudity or f-bombs and even the drug use is surprisingly absent. But make no mistake, these guys love “shibbying,” even coining nicknames for themselves, Jonny Potsmoke and Smokey McPot. But this is the rare pot movie about the day after the blaze and even for its low ambitions, ridiculous story and even sillier characters, “Dude, Where’s My Car” has (surprisingly) endured, and in the right frame mind, is perfectly hilarious. Dude, sweet.
“Smiley Face” (2007)
Some guys take some pretty unusual detours in their path to the “mainstream”: Queer Cinema vanguard Gregg Araki tried to break into more audience-friendly filmmaking with this willfully weird pot comedy that didn’t catch on, possibly because it so specifically captured the vibe of being entirely too baked. Anna Faris gives an absolutely genius performance as a woman so beyond blitzed thanks to a powerful mix of loaded brownies that she can’t even complete a day’s worth of chores, and as she stumbles in a nearly-literal haze, her dizziness goes from hilarious, to tragic, and then right back to brilliantly funny. An able supporting cast includes the likes of Danny Masterson, Adam Brody, John Cho and even Danny Trejo, but to their credit, all they have to do is react to this space cadet who can’t even see straight. Araki packs the film with a few memorably cheap gags, but he’s smart enough to keep the camera fixed on his star as she rolls in and out of the frame like a turtle in its shell, reaching a pot nirvana in the third act as she begins to speak with voices. Specifically Roscoe Lee Browne, as himself. Faris hits all the right notes, particularly in a closing monologue that represents a pitch-perfect encapsulation of how erudite pot smokers think they are as they ramble on listlessly.
“Leaves Of Grass” (2009)
One of the brainier of all pot comedies, this unusual genre stew manages to cram a crime thriller into a pot comedy as well as a twin caper and a study of nature versus nurture. Tim Blake Nelson’s ambitious, oddly philosophical gumbo finds Edward Norton as a straight-laced philosophy professor who is lured to his backwoods hometown because of the death of his pot-growing twin brother. Turns out the brother, also played by Norton with a wildly different haircut, temperament, accent and fashion sense, is another kind of genius. He’s the inventor of a unique hydroponics system designed to grow and maintain enough marijuana to supply the entire state, but he also has to convince his academic brother that he’s dead. The whole ruse is meant to create an alibi in order to facilitate a criminal power move that involves the murder of a local Jewish kingpin played with over-the-top menace by Richard Dreyfuss. Yes, it’s a bit involved for a pot comedy, but scenes where the two Nortons interact bristle with weed-fueled intellectualism, particularly when it comes across that the aggressive mispronunciation of Heidegger is simply one Norton subtly trying to flatter the other. It’s the sort of set-up that would lend itself to dumb yucks, but Nelson loads his film with smart actors (Keri Russell is a highlight) who find the curious humanity behind the self-conscious backwoods clichés.
“Pineapple Express” (2008)
So admittedly dumb you’re surprised no one ever thought of it before: “Pineapple Express” is a genuine, full-blown pot action comedy, one that finds two ganja-fueled men-on-the-run after they witness a murder connected to a nefarious crime boss, one who is in possession of a particularly unique strain of cannabis. The presence of James Remar in the film’s prologue is a nod to the film’s obvious antecedent, the obscure actioner “Quiet Cool” which Remar starred in. But while that film, and most actioners on a whole, attempt to criminalize pot smoking, this film instead finds in Seth Rogen and James Franco two bonafide heroes who are also becoming best friends, one heavy toke at a time. Unusual for one of Judd Apatow’s producing efforts, ‘Express’ actually nabbed a Golden Globe nomination for Franco, in a role that made him the poster boy for casual weed smokers everywhere. But, as homaged recently in “This Is The End,” the picture is stolen by Danny McBride as a rotund enforcer with delusions of grandeur who nonetheless seems to toke up and become borderline invincible in a final reel shootout. David Gordon Green also can’t hide his love for “Midnight Run,” populating the film with a number of interesting faces, including Craig Robinson as an overzealous hitman, Gary Cole as the debonair villain, and Rosie Perez in a rare role as a crooked cop.
“Humboldt County” (2008)
Sometimes, toking up isn’t about going somewhere, but rather letting the air take you away. Such is what happens to Max, the protagonist of “Humboldt County.” Straight-laced and relatively humorless, the buttoned-down scholar flunks out of medical school (thanks to a professor/father played by an amusingly overbearing Peter Bogdanovich), and realizes he has no direction in life. Which is why it’s out-of-character to jump into bed with free-spirited Bogart (Faruzia Balk), and to also agree to her proposition for a long nighttime drive. This eventually becomes an extended road trip to Humboldt County, where Bogart lives on a marijuana commune with a group of counter culture rebels who have formed their own surrogate family away from the law. Though Max rebuffs the advances of the group, he soon finds himself settling in, working on the crop and helping build the community from the ground up. In less safe hands, this would be a wacky fish-out-of-water romp. But directors Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs give their story a grounded reality that believes in the humanity of all involved, refusing to depict either Max’s upper class shyness as a crutch, or the group’s hippie lifestyle as a gag. Part of this comes from casting — Jeremy Strong is perfect in the lead as a quietly attractive nerd who has been risk-averse until now, completing a believable transformation from UCLA student to pot farmer. Special attention must be given to the warm, gentle turn by the always-underrated Brad Dourif as the leader of the group, living a life of weed through a series of understated practicalities that reveals a lithe mind and a wily intelligence.
“Half Baked” (1998)
Long before Dave Chappelle was a comedic genius-turned-recluse (and then back again), he co-wrote (with his future “Chappelle’s Show” partner Neal Brennan) and starred in “Half Baked,” a charmingly low rent comedy about a trio of stoners who sell medicinal marijuana illegally, in order to bail their friend out of jail (he accidentally killed a cop’s horse). “Half Baked” is almost painfully stupid sometimes, and so low budget that you wonder if there was any money for the production, like, at all, but it’s also super funny, even when the jokes have aged terribly, like when Jim Breuer (where has he been?) gets fired from his job at a used record store and uses the opportunity for an extended “Jerry Maguire” reference. You can tell, in Chappelle’s performance, the kind of comedic powerhouse that was about to be unleashed, even if, at this point, his level of sophistication involved naming his love interest Mary Jane (get it?) Still, there are some super funny, super smart moments and is filled with a number of memorable cameos, including appearances by marijuana masters Tommy Chong, Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg. Also included is maybe the most unforgettable performance in “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart‘s short-lived acting career, as an “enhancement” stoner who always asks if you’ve experienced something “on weed.” Yes, it’s dated, it’s cheap, it’s fucking awful a lot of the time, but that doesn’t mean that there still isn’t something powerfully giggle-worthy about “Half Baked.” Although maybe we haven’t even experienced its true power because we haven’t watched it on weed. We’ll get right on that.
“The Big Lebowski” (1998)
What more can be said about the Coen Brothers’ shaggy dog mystery? This cult classic-turned-possibly-actual classic finds a possibly career-best Jeff Bridges as Jeff Lebowski, a layabout goof who is mistaken for a wealthy doppelganger with the same name. The accidental misidentification throws him into a maze of complications involving a missing trophy bride and the collection of baddies and know-it-alls that see this elaborate complication as an excuse to have an adventure. All the while, Bridges’ Lebowski sits in the center of it all, swimming in a sweet, pot-fueled haze, barely making out the difference between what is reality and what is fiction. That haze proves contagious to the viewer, who also easily gets lost within an unforgettable supporting cast of ringers, including Jeff’s pot-smoking buddies, high-strung war veteran Walter (John Goodman, disappearing into the role) and meek Donny (Steve Buscemi), both of whom give flimsy guidance as Lebowski floats through his predicament. “The Big Lebowski,” which has the same boozy charm as Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” never stops to remind Lebowski that he’s at the center of a web of crime, one that he can’t be bothered to acknowledge lest he spill his beverage, and the flimsy logic that connects the various strands of the story make less sense to his fractured brain, so addled that by the time he’s realizing where he’s seen Karl Hungus before or realizing what he should know about Jackie Treehorn, he’s just about ready to take out his roach and light up one more time.
After only days in release, there’s a certain confidence in placing Shaka King’s new film alongside it’s more established brethren. That comes from that steady balance of tones that keeps “Newlyweeds” from veering into irritating sentimentality or cheap slapstick, creating a narrative depicting the most hardcore of love triangles: a man, and woman and their weed. Newcomers Amari Cheatom and Trae Harris play a married couple just getting by on part-time paychecks, spending their extra cheddar on a little green heaven. But tension arises when they begin to hoard each other’s stash, and trouble at work forces each of them to lean not only on each other, but on their shared addiction. King’s film never delves too deeply into preachiness, nor does it openly praise weed usage. Instead, it finds the innate truth within those late nights of scrounging for extra bud, hitting up friends and associates for that extra fix and getting stranded after being ripped off, the bleak existentialism of the illicit transaction. Cheatom and Harris are both genuinely appealing and watchable, both of them coming across as real-deal smokers who can’t begin the day without a short toke and kiss, and while the film captures the high of some sweet weed and a nice couch after a long day, it also presents a real relationship worth rooting for.
We would be remiss if we failed to mention a couple of classics of the genre. “Cheech & Chong: Up in Smoke” and all their offshoots are obviously stoner classics (1983’s “Still Smokin‘” when they hit Amsterdam is particularly amusing), but you’ve obviously seen them all and we wanted to make room for some lesser-seen picks. What else? Both versions of “Reefer Madness” are worth watching—the original is a hilariously arch condemnation of pot use, meant to “scare” potential viewers but instead coming across as wildly out-of-touch and ineffective, which made it ripe material for a musical satire (starring Kristen Bell!) Kevin Smith‘s “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” has its share of weed and gonzo absurdity. Snoop Dogg loves to get high on shrooms and weed in “Soul Plane.” While Bill and Ted don’t partake in the herb in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (it is rated PG after all), the slacker duo are clearly a little bit lit-up throughout (same applies for “Beavis and Butt-head Do America“). Doug Benson‘s “Super High Me” is beloved by hardcore herbsman and “Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie” is so off the charts anyone with marijuana affinities has surely partaken in that insanity of a movie. There’s even a zombie stoner movie called, “Bong Of The Dead.” Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa have “High School” together (get it?) but that’s far from classic (in fact it’s nearly unwatchable). “National Lampoon’s Totally Baked: A Potumentary” is a mockumentary that no one saw or cared about. There’s also a fair amount of the sticky sweet in Curtis Hanson‘s “Wonder Boys,” starring Michael Douglas as an eccentric writer. And of all the post-“Friday” “urban” stoner comedies, “How High” is easily the best. It’s also got, like, a totally killer soundtrack. Brad Pitt‘s small role in “True Romance” is obviously a stoner classic scenes, but one cameo a stoner movie does not make. What are your favorite stoner movies? Do you remember, weed does affect memory after all. — Gabe Toro, Drew Taylor, and Kevin Jagernauth