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Smoke screens

By PETER KEOUGH  |  August 18, 2008

The Dude, nonetheless, abides. So, too, does Lester (Kevin Spacey), in Sam Mendes’s Oscar-winning American Beauty (1999). Lester ineffectually protests his suburban domesticity by lusting after a minor and buying dope from a disturbed teenaged neighbor. Barely abiding also is Grady Tripp, Michael Douglas’s academic/novelist in Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys (2000). Tripp tries to break out of his funk by going on a silly quest with a gay protégé (Tobey Maguire) and a flirtatious co-ed (Katie Holmes). Neither of these countercultural relics accomplishes much, other than idling away the time getting stoned. And, sadly for them, that practice no longer even had the cachet of being subversive.

Smart bongs
While the codgers puffed their pipes and reminisced, a new generation of stoners was taking shape. True, there were throwbacks to the morons of the past in films like Road Trip (2000) and Dude, Where’s My Car (2000). But with Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1994), a wise-ass savviness complemented the typical stoner sloth and puerility. Maybe the turning point in the genre came with Bob (“Everybody must get stoned”) Dylan’s son Jesse’s debut feature How High (2001). The plot follows the above mentioned Stoner Film Template pretty closely. Two bud smokers (played by rappers Method Man and Redman) engage in a silly quest (they try to get into, and then try to graduate from, Harvard), opposed by an uptight authority figure (the African-American dean), all ending in a conflagration in which everyone gets stoned.

But there are differences, also. First, the heroes aren’t dolts or slackers. They’re both ambitious, and one is a brilliant botanist. And the dope actually makes them smarter. Adding the ashes of a dead friend (hey, it’s still a stoner movie; later they smoke the corpse of John Quincy Adams), the botanist has developed a strain of weed that allows the user to get all the right answers to any exam.

If that sounds more like cheating than recreation, then maybe the wildly successful Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004) makes a better case for my argument, whatever it is. Again, the Template is followed (including the optional components of a pivotal bowel movement, a dropped joint, and a maddening circularity). As in How High, the heroes are not dummies, but in fact have already graduated from Ivy League institutions. Harold works in a tony investment firm and Kumar has the know-how to get into any medical school he wants to — if only he could bother himself to do so. Bored with this version of the American Dream, they head off on the silly quest of the title, and, after many repetitious and bizarre adventures, return to their bourgeois existence, newly motivated and realizing that there’s no place like home.

As often happens under the influence of marijuana, time can play tricks with you, so the sequel Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantánamo Bay, released four years later, actually takes place moments after the first one ends. [Note: Harold & Kumar spoiler alert!] The silly quest this time is a flight to Amsterdam, so Harold can pursue his true love (and because pot there is, you know, legal). Here, the plot option of a novel, bizarre cannabis-delivery system (see number 4 on the Template’s “Optional” list) plays a major role, in this case a smokeless bong Kumar has cooked up to elude the on-flight smoke detectors. Caught by flight marshals (“It’s a bong!”), they get set up with orange jump suits and one-way tickets to Cuba. There they manage to escape the “cock-meat sandwiches” and elude the uptight, idiotic authority of the acting head of Homeland Security to somehow end up, in a maddeningly circuitous way, in George W. Bush’s den in Crawford, Texas.

The commander in chief rolls up a joint of prime Alabama herb and shares it with our two heroes. Kumar objects to the inconsistency of the president putting people in jail for the same habit he engages in himself. Noting that Kumar enjoys getting hand jobs (if not cock-meat sandwiches), but not so much giving them, the president concludes, “Yeah, well, that makes you a fuckin’ hypocriticizer too, so shut the fuck up! Now smoke my weed.”

With that, he pardons the two of all charges of terrorizing. And, in effect, absolves, at least onscreen, all those who succumb to the temptation of the evil weed. As Oliver Stone’s upcoming W. should demonstrate, the White House, not the nut house, is where the real reefer madness can be found.

To read the Outside the Frame blog, go to Peter Keough can be reached

Correction: The original version of this story mistakenly stated that Alex Cox was the director of River's Edge.

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  Topics: Features , Illegal Drugs , Marijuana , Tommy Chong ,  More more >
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