Leisure and Innocence
The eternal appeal of the stoner movie.
Read more from Slate's Summer Movies.
Nearly every summer, the High Times set puts down their gravity bongs, turns off Reading Rainbow, and emerges from the safe confines of their parents' basements to descend upon America's multiplexes for a no less glorious occasion than the summer stoner movie. Not to be confused with films like Winged Migration, Wizard of Oz, or Muppets Take Manhattan—however beloved by tokers they may be—the proper stoner movie is by, for, and about pot smokers. These are not movies where a lone joint is passed around in a party scene. Instead, the stoner film shows serious commitment to smoking and acquiring marijuana as a lifestyle choice.
For years, stoners were forced to champion cult classics, like the 1950s anti-drug morality tale Reefer Madness, watch Easy Rider, or settle for nature shows. That ended with the arrival of the spiritual fathers of the genre. The comedy duo of Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong made 10 movies and as many comedy albums in the 1970s and 1980s. In their first film, Up in Smoke (1978), the two drive around in Cheech's lowrider (license plates: MUF DVR) while smoking a joint the size of a burrito. Spectacular hijinks ensue, including jail time, Tijuana, and the construction of a van made entirely of marijuana. The climactic scene alone involves groupies, punk bands, and policemen undercover as Hare Krishnas.
The Cheech and Chong films created a template from which stoner movies rarely veer: two guys + a big bag of weed + some kind of task to complete = awesome times. By simply existing, stoner movies also point out that movies are sort of silly, which can be refreshing in this age of bloated three-hour-long Spider-Man sequels. Even better, all the awesomeness happens in no more than 90 minutes. The brevity of the stoner movie is partly necessity—must wrap up the action before the buzz wears off—but is also the source of their brilliance. That short running time in no way hinders the maximalism of the genre, as they are packed with more adventure than any swashbuckling epic.
In Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), the simple task of going on a burger run involves a rabid raccoon, a trip to Princeton University, and former child star Neil Patrick Harris (as himself) peaking on ecstasy. In The Big Lebowski (1998), the quest undertaken by The Dude—a character who inspires annual festivals and an award for "stony achievement in film"—involves bowling teams, German nihilists, White Russians, radical feminists, and kidnapping. In Rolling Kansas (2003), siblings Dink, Dick, and Dave (if that's not inherently hilarious to you, feel free to skip this one) look for a magical forest of weed on government property via a map bequeathed to them by their imprisoned flower child parents. Dude, Where's My Car's (2000) titular task is interrupted by cruel jocks, trips to a drive-through Chinese restaurant, and saving the world from an alien weapon. It should go without saying that suspension of disbelief is essential here.
But even if stoners manage to save the world, these aren't action movies, which have violence and suspense, two things that could totally harsh a stoner out. Rather, the dark side of smoking pot is the constant specter of paranoia. The opening scene of Super Troopers (2001), in which a carful of Vermont potheads goes from debating whether if you own beach property you also own the sand and the water to a full-blown highway car chase, is a perfect example. Besides the act of looking for marijuana, the other main activity in a stoner movie is escaping authority figures (often the police, but occasionally campus security guards, co-workers, or parents) who don't just oppose the stoner's flagrant drug usage but their lifestyle of leisure and innocence.
Photograph of Cheech and Chong by Mark Davis/Getty Images.