Leisure and Innocence
The eternal appeal of the stoner movie.
Read more from Slate's Summer Movies.
Even though a lot happens in stoner movies, these films don't require your full attention—you can go pay the pizza delivery guy or get sidetracked by a friend quoting the "It'd be a lot cooler if you did" rejoinder from Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused (1993) and never miss anything essential to the plot. And, in between images of hot boxing in cars and stoners snacking on Funyuns, these movies depict surprisingly tender portrayals of male friendship: Cheech and Chong, Bill and Ted, Wayne and Garth, Harold and Kumar. All of them provide for plenty of "I love you, man" moments. Girls are usually relegated to less nuanced roles, as strippers, curse-spewing old ladies, or the long-suffering girlfriend. Director Gregg Araki's Smiley Face, which stars Anna Faris and comes out in late July, will be the first stoner movie to proudly feature a female protagonist.
While pothead movies invariably include middle-class white hippies, they're also some of the most racially and ethnically diverse movies around—Cheech and Chong, Chris Tucker and Ice Cube in the Friday movies, John Cho and Kal Penn in Harold and Kumar (plus their Jewish stoner neighbors Rosenberg and Goldstein), Redman and Method Man in How High, and Dave Chapelle and Guillermo Diaz in Half Baked. Being a pothead can be just another persistent racial stereotype, but these movies treat their protagonists with the utmost affection, showing them as exemplary citizens who aren't lawbreakers so much as rogue individualists who refuse to play the corporate game. The stoner movie provides a way for celebrities who do play the corporate game to wink at the college crowd and show off a little outlaw cred. Thus, they are a paradise for cameos, from Snoop Dogg and Willie Nelson to Fabio and Jon Stewart.
Movie studios seem to have a decidedly more conflicted relationship with the genre. In the words of director Tamra Davis in the commentary for Half Baked, "You just can't believe they let you make a movie like this." Her movie made about four times its modest $10 million budget but was pulled from screens after just a few weeks because kids were smoking pot in the theaters—something the studio was happy to profit from but did not want to be responsible for.
"Stoner movies without weed should have been like 'Star Wars' without the Force, or 'Titanic' without the iceberg," writes an Australian blogger who points out that movies like the Wayne's World and Bill and Ted franchises clearly are about stoners, even if they don't ever explicitly state that. According to the protests of actors Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott, the original Dude, Where's My Car? script had multiple pot-smoking scenes. But the two stars were already hugely popular with teens and the studio wanted them to appear in a film with a PG-13 rating, which forbids portrayals of drug use. In the end, only a dog is allowed to take a hit off a pipe and the actors are left assuring us in the commentary how stoned they really were. Danny Leiner, the director, went on to make Harold and Kumar, which heralded a return to R-rated stoner movies.
So must one actually be stoned to even enjoy a stoner movie? It probably helps if you know how to turn an apple into a smoking device or can tell Maui Wowie from Acapulco Gold, but you really don't have to even like smoking pot to enjoy them. Anyone can appreciate the values of stoner movies, which function as motivational tools for the highly unmotivated. Walking out of a stoner movie, there is a certain kind of enlightenment: a feeling that you can face whatever dangers the world offers, joint in hand or not.
Photograph of Cheech and Chong by Mark Davis/Getty Images.