Tripping Out of the Bromance: The Female Pothead in Smiley Face

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Image Credit: First Look International/Peace Arch Releasing

Celebrating awkward, inept slackers and goofy hedonism, the genre of stoner comedy is an outright rebuff of grace. Ever since Cheech and Chong launched their self-titled movies in the 1970s, the genre dedicated itself to chaotic, bong-wielding men-children trying to uphold their lifestyle of leisure against unsympathetic philistines and droll authority figures. Behind the obvious adulation of pot consumption, the stoner film pushes back against meritocracy in fantastic adventures that are often plotted around injustices entrenched in the legal and social system. The outcome of these blazed odysseys always favours the slacky and the unproductive.

While this anti-capitalist impulse is a rarity in mainstream Hollywood films, the stoner comedy also exploits its fool’s license to sell the most regressive sexisms for cheap laughs. As if emulating its infantile anti-heroes, this genre has been representative of the worst rearward tendencies, from the often distressingly misogynic Cheech and Chong films, to the “enlightened” sexism of the age of irony (says rapper Redman as Jesse Dylan in 2001’s How High: “How can I fail woman studies? I love bitches!”). This trend reached an exemplary low in Dude, Where’s My Car? (2000), wherein the celebratory happy ending involves friendly aliens bestowing larger breasts upon the protagonists’ girlfriends. It’s an insidious form of chauvinism, as it plays on the excuse of the genre’s overall goofiness and claims it mustn’t be taken seriously. So while the weed culture that’s elevated in these films celebrates camaraderie and shoving it to “the man,” the toking up is largely by the buddies telling everyone else to “relax, dude.” Women are relegated to marginal roles (demanding girlfriend, frigid nag, vamp), if not entirely excluded from the blazed adventures.

Gregg Araki’s Smiley Face (2007) stands out from this cloud of smoke, as it follows an unemployed L.A.-based actress and weed lover, Jane (Anna Faris), who goes on a wild trip. Araki appropriates the stoner comedy, keeping all its primary conventions while introducing a gender reversal. From physical  comedy and narrating the events of a single day, to the intoxicated heroine having to accomplish simple tasks, to incorporating such trash-idiosyncrasies as trippy titles and sound effects. There’s also the all-but-requisite cameos by Puff, Puff, Pass actor Danny Masterson as a skull-fornicator and Harold and Kumar’s John Cho and Machete’s Danny Trejo as unjustly treated factory workers. Araki, relying on Faris’ incredible comic skills, points to the politics of tripping, and asks who really has the privilege of acting ungracefully—and importantly, consequence-free.

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Image Credit: First Look International/Peace Arch Releasing

Our heroine, Jane, is a former college major in economics, and struggles to get by on what she earns doing commercials. As she says, the “economy didn’t work out” for her. One morning she indulges an early morning case of the munchies and devours a dozen cupcakes, which her Star Wars-cosplaying roommate, Steve (Masterson), has made for a sci-fi convention. The cupcakes, however, have been spiked with cannabis. As Jane gets increasingly high, she feels the need to cook a replacement batch, and orders a large amount of pot from her cocky dealer, another obnoxious Steve (Adam Brody). That she can’t pay up front is only the start of what will prove to be a terrible day.

Jane stumbles from one catastrophe to the next, driven by constant paranoia in a world that seems extra harsh to a pothead. Throughout, Faris contorts her face to mirror the stages of extreme pot consumption—from euphoria to paranoia to depression—in comically exaggerated detail. Facing an unceasing stream of calamities, Jane ends up stoned at an audition, where she flushes the expensive and rare type of weed down her casting agency’s toilet, and along with it her job prospects and her last chance to pay the bills. In Faris’ layered performance of dysfunctional Jane, her interactions and grimaces oscillate between hilarious and touching. Most notably, gone is the high-gloss drug chic of frail 1990s icons and models—Faris is loud, brash, and bumbling. Compared to Milla Jovovich’s iconic serene and silent stoneress in Dazed and Confused (1993), Faris invokes a new kind of woman under the influence. Her exuberant expressivity is uncannily singular in the age of Botox, and even more so within a genre where the part of acting the loveable fool is uniquely reserved for men.

Eventually, Jane reluctantly calls up her nerdy admirer Brevin (John Krasinski) who is willing to lend her money to replace her newly-flushed stash. But when his wallet is stolen, Jane finds herself on the run again, and seeks refuge in the suburban, bourgeois house of her former Marxist Studies professor (an uncredited David Goldman). Here, Araki lays out the stoner comedy’s social critiques in a surreal travesty: Jane inadvertently pockets the (ironically highly-valued) original manuscript of the Communist Manifesto.

With this document in hand and still flying high, Jane is led to a dismal sausage factory in the middle of nowhere after she’s attracted by an image of a cute pig on the side of a truck. There, the floor manager reprimands the workers for bringing “a girlfriend.” Jane, inspired by the Communist Manifesto, rebuffs this by claiming to be at the factory to organize a union. Since this ill-thought-out proclamation only appears to deteriorate the situation, she tries to save herself by giving an impassioned plea against corporate injustice, reciting whole passages from the communist scripture. It turns out, however, that the eloquent speech only took place in Jane’s mind, and what she really uttered was a stream of incoherent banalities: “You think you’re so, um, uh… And then you go on and on about this and that and all this other bullshit and all I have to say is…this situation is totally fucked with a capital!”

Many stoner parodies draw from the comical discrepancy between subjectively impressive realizations and an ineptitude at articulating them in a meaningful way. In this particular scene, however, with a woman in the central role, this principle becomes an illustration of having no voice; no means of expression to begin with. Jane’s protest, even had it been eloquently professed, would probably have been trivialized and infantilized anyway. As a total anti-climax, the sequence ends with Jane flying through the air as she’s kicked out of the factory.

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Image Credit: First Look International/Peace Arch Releasing

Araki’s interpretation of the stoner diverges from the common portrait of the jocular pothead insofar as his protagonist is isolated from her peers, as well as from other typical figures in the genre: the “nerds” (with their sexual frustration for “hot chicks”) or the high-fiving, hemp-wearing dude-bros (equipped, naturally, with alien posters). While most cinematic stoners homosocially bond over their juvenile triumphs, Jane meets with little support or sympathy. Instead, there’s the two condescending Steves—one of them, the mansplaining, dreadlocked pseudo-revolutionary dealer, even turns hostile when Jane corrects his understanding of weed-selling as a trickle-down-economy. (“God bless you for it,” she says, “but it sounds like plain old market capitalism to me”).

Jane mostly finds herself subject to contempt (“you are so pathetic” says her roommate Steve) or ludicrous sexual projections, like the quasi-erotic board-gaming fantasies of Brevin. Jane normally couldn’t care less what these bros think, but as people start steering away from her, social isolation and disgrace linger in the background: the titular smiley face in Jane’s pot-fueled vision eventually transforms into a scary skull. Outside of Natashia Williams appearing briefly as a motorcyclist in shining armour, Jane lacks the support of fellow potheads to applaud her awkward pratfalls. As the movie closes, the utopian element of the stoner comedy—where luck is always on the side of the (male) marginalized[i]— is completely dispelled by “sobering” reality: Jane wakes up collecting trash on the sidewalk and is sentenced to five years in prison for destruction of property.

Jane, then, walks through the stoner scenery and among its genre-specific tropes in an alienated way—but it’s not for nothing. She pays tribute to the stoner comedy’s dissident tradition while problematizing its male-homosocial conduct—and she’s really funny. Faris’ nuanced slapstick magnifies her opponents’ biases, poking fun at the ones who normally hold the comedic upper hand. Smiley Face reminds us that malfunction and tripping are sites worthy of feminist struggle too.

Julia Pennauer is a cultural studies scholar, writer, and theatre dramaturge based in Vienna, Austria. Her academic work deals with camp and political manifestations of trash aesthetics.

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FOOTNOTES

[i] Getting high can, in the logics of the stoner comedy, literally become synonymous with upward mobility, as in the case of How High where Method Men and Redman blur social distinctions at Harvard University by buzzing up the entire institution.

Julia Pennauer is a cultural studies scholar, writer, and theatre dramaturge based in Vienna, Austria. Her academic work deals with camp and political manifestations of trash aesthetics.