1) Two (sometimes more) dumb, latently homosexual stoner buddies as protagonists
2) A dumb, arrogant, entitled, and uptight cop or authority figure as an antagonist
3) A silly quest (for weed, usually) or a paranoid flight (from the cops, the heebie-jeebies), or both
4) A concluding conflagration or confrontation, in which everyone usually gets high
Other, optional elements include:
1) A noisy and malodorous bowel movement as a plot device
2) A roach (or other lit object) falling into the lap of someone driving a car
3) Women ranking behind dope and food — but ahead of beer — as objects of desire
4) A new and/or bizarre cannabis-delivery system
5) A maddening, unending circularity, not unlike my own bad experiences with pot
Okay, that last one is a little subjective. But the other categories are pretty consistent.
Of course, there’s a bridge between the idealistic stoners of the ’60s and the idiotic stoners of today. To find it, first it’s necessary to ponder the great smoke-out that began with the Reagan years, the era of “Just Say No.” No more funny druggies with big joints and innocent, hedonistic buffoonery. Instead, dopers were demonized or doomed. Like the suburban kids in Tim Hunter's chilling River’s Edge (1986) [See correction, below.] . They’re freaky sociopaths zombified by Dennis Hopper’s killer weed. They can be summarized in two words: Crispin Glover.
As in the ’60s, grass gave way to meaner drugs like smack, crack, coke, and crystal meth, served up in moralizing melodramas like Gus Van Sant’s hip but preachy (“You never fuck me and I always drive”) Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and My Own Private Idaho (1991). Or Generation X burnouts like Less than Zero (1987) and Bright Lights, Big City (1988). And don’t forget Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983), which no doubt has scared straight a generation of gangstas wearing Tony Montana T-shirts.
Despite the crackdown, however, a spark of the Up in Smoke legacy still glowed. Like Sean Penn’s Spicoli in Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), this unsavory element was marginalized in society (and was only intended to be a smaller part of the film), but was embraced by audiences nonetheless. It went underground in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), a doper comedy without dope. But when the real deal finally returned, the generation that had engendered it had come of age, ushering in a variation on the stoner comedy, a subgenre I’ll call . . .
As the ’60s and ’70s potheads grew into middle-class respectability, they still pined for the good old days. This stoned-age nostalgia not only sparked a new kind of stoner movie, but also started making the genre, if not the practice, respectable. An early example is Bill Murray as Hunter S. Thompson in the widely despised Where the Buffalo Roam (1980) — Thompson would be resurrected by Johnny Depp in 1998 in Terry Gilliam’s far superior but equally scorned Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Other examples include Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), which features a scene in which Willem Dafoe literally takes a shotgun and blows ganja smoke into Charlie Sheen’s mouth in ’Nam in the ’60s; Richard Linklater’s latter-day American Graffiti, Dazed and Confused (1993); and Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (2000), his memoir of covering rock and roll as a teenage journalist for Rolling Stone in the 1970s.
These films are period pieces looking back at weed’s salad days. What about the aging potheads themselves? People like Bill Clinton, our chief executive from 1992 to 2000, or George W. Bush, his successor, who both tried to dispel the traces of their former indulgences like a teenager spraying air freshener? Or more poignantly, what about those who had the courage to stick to their (potential drug) convictions? Like the legendary Tommy Chong himself, who, as seen in Josh Gilbert’s 2005 documentary a/k/a Tommy Chong, tried to make ends meet in his post-Smoke-sequel, pre–Cheech & Chong reunion days by selling bongs and other paraphernalia online? That is, until a multi-million-dollar sting operation conducted by eager-beavers in John Ashcroft’s Department of Justice nailed his ass and sent him to prison. You can run but you can’t hide, evildoer!
Chong’s fictional counterparts don’t make out much better. Jeff Bridges’s “the Dude” in the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski (1998) vaguely recalls smoking dope and occupying university buildings once upon a time, but all he cares about now (it’s 1991, during the buildup to the first Gulf War) is smoking dope, drinking “Caucasians,” and maybe bowling (does he in fact roll a single ball in the entire movie?). That changes when a case of mistaken identity ends with his rug getting peed on, compounded by a case of mistaken machismo. Egged on by his pal Walter (John Goodman), whose Vietnam past has been stirred up by the senior Bush’s anti-Iraq rhetoric, the Dude decides that this outrage against his carpet “will not stand.”
For his troubles, he ends up in a dopey noir-ish nightmare involving nihilists, a pornographer, and a Busby Berkeley–like production number starring Julianne Moore and Saddam Hussein set in a bowling alley.