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Marijuana at the movies

Pot counter-culture becoming part of pop culture

Don’t look to Hollywood history for a nuanced depiction of the average marijuana user.

Though many films depict casual and medicinal practices, the more memorable marijuana-infused movies tend to follow the “stoner comedy” template: a pair of lovable losers embark on quests for simple pleasures – usually good food or more pot. Expect a bizarre fantasy sequence or two, an out-of-their-league romantic interest and an uptight villain who just needs to loosen up, man.

Seth Rogen reigns as the current king of stoner comedies, though he owes his success to the trails blazed by Cheech & Chong, Bill & Ted, Harold & Kumar, and those poor, poor teenagers infected with reefer madness generations ago.

Memorable marijuana use in cinema rarely crosses into heavy drama. Plenty of movie characters suffer mightily at the hands of alcohol or hard drugs, but nobody takes the pothead seriously, except for maybe Mr. Hand, Sean Penn’s teacher in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

Some high pedigree filmmakers have dabbled with the Mary Jane too – notably Richard Linklater with “Dazed & Confused” and the Coen Brothers with “The Big Lebowski.” The Dude wasn’t only about bowling and White Russians.

Dopeheads on film may act, well, dopey, but many users and non-users alike remember them because they’re bigger than life, and their humor transcends the stoner stereotype.

In many ways, the expanded legalization of marijuana and ease of access may fly in the face of weed’s anti-establishment roots, meaning the golden age of ‘stoner comedies’ may actually be waning.

Rogen still makes room for pot in most of his movies, but the stories themselves are becoming more about growing up and being responsible (think “Neighbors” or “The Night Before.”)  Marijuana still matters, just not as much as, say, taking care of family.

How did we get to such an enlightened cinematic space? It all started with a “public health warning” in 1936…

  • ‘Reefer Madness’

    Originally intended as a scare tactic for parents of teens, “Reefer Madness” used melodrama and twisted logic as an anti-marijuana narrative. Rediscovered in the 1970s for its unintentional humor, the film is now a cult favorite and has spawned a number of comedic commentaries (think “Mystery Science Theater” style, and even a musical adaptation in 2005.)

  • “Cheech & Chong”  

Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong became counterculture comedy icons with a series of lucrative stand-up specials, albums and films about their cannabis-loving alter-egos. Their first film, 1978’s “Up in Smoke” is still considered their best effort. Try to forget the abysmal cartoon, “Cheech & Chong’s Animated Movie” in 2013.

  • Kevin Smith?

    Writer/director Kevin Smith created a memorable duo of stoner heroes: Jay and Silent Bob. In films like “Clerks,” “Mallrats” and “Chasing Amy,” the lovable drug dealers only appear to offer occasional filthy jokes or unexpectedly poignant advice. The pair received a larger spotlight in “Dogma” and “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back,” but even those movies provided enough Ben Affleck and Matt Damon star power to offset the low-brow humor.  After a more subdued turn in “Clerks II,” the Quick Stop loiterers haven’t re-appeared in Smith’s recent work. While the director now proudly touts his own regular marijuana use, the movies lack the punch and basic cohesiveness of even his laziest Jay and Bob bits. After sitting through the insufferable “Yoga Hosers,” perhaps Smith needs to find a new strain.

 

  • Harold & Kumar  

John Cho and Kal Penn brought the stoner comedy back into relevance in 2004 thanks to the witty subversion of ethnic stereotypes in “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” and its inferior-but-charming sequels, “Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay” and “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas.” The series also featured Neil Patrick Harris as a coked-out, sex maniac version of himself.

  • Seth Rogen

Rogen’s cannabis indoctrination of Hollywood works mostly because the comedian manages to make consistent films. His most overt stoner comedy, 2008’s “Pineapple Express,” plays best as a riff on drug-themed action movies, and he’s found a soulmate in James Franco, to the point where their onscreen love almost got us into a war with North Korea (“The Interview”).

It helps that Rogen, alongside writing partner Evan Goldberg, clearly want to make movies about something other than smoking pot. Their best film, the apocalyptic hang-out movie “This is the End,” is a soulful morality tale that also happens to include weed, grisly celebrity deaths and the terrifying idea of a cannibalistic Danny McBride.

Even in his lesser efforts, like last year’s way R-rated cartoon, “Sausage Party,” the marijuana use is neither demonized or celebrated, just one component of a broader comic choice. Rogen may be the figurehead of the stoner film genre, but he’s ushering in an era where the genre fits more comfortably in the broader comedic landscape.

As marijuana continues its rise to the mainstream, there may be less need for lovable, anti-establishment stoner heroes. But so long as the Dude abides, movies will always welcome them for the occasional shenanigans. There will always be uptight teachers, overbearing cops and Mountain Dew-guzzling racists, and the only way to squash them all is to light ‘em up.