August 6, 2008

Latest Crop of Stoner Flicks Lights Up the Screen

By Andrew Dansby, Houston Chronicle

Aug. 6--Seth Rogen won High Times magazine's Stony Award in 2007 for his work in the pothead romcom Knocked Up. He seems a likely nominee again for the award, which is given to the stoner of the year, for Pineapple Express, a film that puts Rogen on the stoner-movie equivalent of Marlon Brando's Oscar-nominated drama run in the 1950s.

Those who go back with Rogen to his start on TV's Freaks and Geeks, where he played an implied stoner, aren't surprised he's become one of the most bankable funnymen in the movies.

More interesting about Pineapple, which opens today, is that it's likely to do better box office than your average recreational drug flick. It should be said up front that if depictions of such drug use cause you offense, you should pass on this film, since there's a lot of it. But Knocked Up didn't suffer because of its pot smokers. Both it and Pineapple are 21st-century mutants that can be credited, at least in part, to Rogen, who helped marry the stoner movie to the romantic comedy with Knocked Up (in which he starred) and the stoner movie to the buddy action movie with Pineapple (which he also co-wrote).

Under the guiding hand of producer/director/writer/comedy kingpin Judd Apatow, the stoner movie has found a sense of direction -- a job, if you will. The plots are fairly rudimentary. In the case of Pineapple, it's more a sustained chase than a plot. But amid all that smoke, they're fairly clear-minded.

Rogen recently told GQ, "I didn't realize this, but weed is considered a genre. A weed movie's like a horror movie or a sci-fi movie."

But unlike horror and sci-fi flicks, marijuana movies aren't necessarily the fluffed and stuffed box-office Twinkies that make up BoxOfficeMojo's 100 best-sellers of all time. Typically, stoner fare about stoners has done box office closer to Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle ($18 million domestic, according to boxofficemojo.com) or Dazed and Confused (a shade under $8 million) than Apatow comedies (Knocked Up nearly hit $150 million).

True stoner movies' cult embrace often occurs after the theatrical run. On home video. After all, home is where the snacks are.

Admittedly potheads can turn most anything that's on that BoxOfficeMojo list into a whoa-inducing movie: Transformers, Home Alone, Jaws. Maybe not Pearl Harbor. And definitely not The Passion of the Christ. But 300? WALL-E? Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull?

Much in the way that all bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon, movies with potheads are stoner movies but not all stoner movies require characters who are high. It's in the mind of the besmoker.

That's a point well made by the book, sadly out of print, Baked Potatoes: A Pot Smoker's Guide to Film and Video. Evil Dead II was revered, El Topo was feared, and, if memory serves, Ganjasaurus Rex received a shrug.

Cinema has produced a number of classic potheads. But more often than not, the films aren't really about pot smokers. Like True Romance's Floyd or Fast Times at Ridgemont High's Jeff Spicoli (see TMi, Page 3), they're comic relief in a broader drama. If baked couch potatoes were pulled to the theater by these movies, they were not there alone.

Like Knocked Up, Pineapple should do a little better financially than, say, How High or Up in Smoke. Not Dark Knight numbers, but it has a healthy pre-release word of mouth and it might prompt bigger concession stand sales than your average action movie. Or it might just draw fans of punchline-dappled action movies.

Pineapple could be perceived as something of a bait-and-switch. Two friends who saw it were surprised to find it had a stoner bent. They'd clearly missed the red-band trailer that surfaced online way earlier this year.

For obvious reasons, the ad that began to circulate on TV a few weeks ago whacked a scene in which James Franco's pot dealer likened the smell of a bag of the titular weed to that of a deity's female private parts.

There remained lots of smoke in the clean trailer, but clear pot references were bumped to the fringes. The implied references -- like a desperate plea to pack Fruit Roll-Ups when Pineapple's two potheads (Rogen and his Freaks and Geeks co-star Franco) must flee -- stayed. Even the M.I.A. song Paper Planes, which plays beneath both the naughty trailer and the clean one, was altered for the latter. The line "sticks and stones and weed and bones" subs "feed" (Fruit Roll-Ups?) for the weed.

Bongs didn't keep Knocked Up from becoming a hit. It was about more than potheads, the same way TV's Weeds is about more than pot dealers. Apatow's productions often find a heartbeat in unlikely but tender relationships, as does Pineapple, though its bonding-on-the-lam tale feels forced at times.

Two years ago a National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 14.8 million Americans 12 and older smoked marijuana at least once in the month prior to the survey (according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse). It's hardly something everyone can relate to, though pre-screening audiences seemed to react to it with vocal enthusiasm. Still, jokes about selling marijuana to kids will easily turn off a lot of viewers.

But the romcom and the action movie remain vehicles that penetrate a larger movie-going constituency. If Pineapple succeeds, it will be more about the writing, the comedy, the acting and the ridiculous-but-enjoyable action than the fact that it involves two smokers wheezing as they run.

According to a recent Rolling Stone feature, Franco has never inhaled, though that didn't keep him from nailing the part of dealer Saul right down to the red-eyed squint and colorful trousers. In the GQ interview with Rogen, Apatow said he and the star disagreed on the film's standing among the weed genre.

"He thinks we're making a pot movie," Apatow said. "And I think we're making an anti-pot movie. In my head, (Pineapple) is clearly a story of how pot leads to Asian gangs trying to murder you."

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