There’s been a sizable, if not quite noble, tradition of stoner comedies in American cinema going back the last forty years or more. This has been largely since the arrival of the late sixties counterculture generation and the realization that people who smoke cannabis are not only easily amused, but can also be quite amusing to watch. The idea was itself an offshoot of the age-old comedies of drunkenness that have been a part of human entertainment pretty much since the first caveman ate the wrong sort of mushrooms and started to walk into things.
But cannabis has plenty more benefits for filmmakers – where alcohol may make people fall over and do stupid things and psychedelic drugs make their users dance around madly or lie back hallucinating, cannabis tends to both heighten its users’ sense of both ridiculousness and paranoia, while also turning them (in Hollywood’s eyes, at least) decidedly stupid. Paranoia has long been a great catalyst for a story – add the ridiculousness and stupidity into the mix, you’re on to a winner. Hence the success of the likes of Harold and Kumar, Cheech and Chong, Jay and Silent Bob – not to mention the duo that arguably started it all, Hawkeye and Trapper from 1970’s classic MASH.
But, of course, in the very best stoner comedies the cannabis itself is little more than a minor device – something to lure in the largely teenage/student target audience by making them think that what they’re going to see is a bit risqué. What makes the best of these films work is, as with any comedy, the humour itself. Here though, unusually, cannabis lies right at the heart of the film – because it all revolves around one habitual user and his layabout dealer who end up being hunted by police precisely because of the unusual strain of cannabis they’re both partial to.
So far, so unoriginal. But the key is not the plot, but the chap who’s the mastermind of the whole thing – writer and star Seth Rogan. Because the thing to remember is that although Rogan is still best known as the chubby slacker star of last year’s smash hit romantic comedy Knocked Up, he was also the writer of the similarly big hit Superbad. The first was for people in their late 20s and early 30s at the age when marriage and kids start looming ever larger over the horizon; the second for teenagers on the cusp of discovering sex, alcohol, and grown-up kinds of fun. Rogan’s old buddy Judd Apatow, writer/director of Knocked Up and producer of Superbad, has also tackled the fortysomething crisis of confidence in his The 40 Year Old Virgin. This latest offering – for which Apatow gets a credit for helping come up with the story – seems more focused on those of student age, the traditional Hollywood target demographic for comedies revolving around drugs, largely because hardly anyone else has enough time to sit around being off their heads all the time.
Yes, at its heart this may be a fairly old-fashioned chase movie with a drug-induced paranoid twist, aimed squarely at the student market. But as the previous films from Rogan and Apatow have shown, these guys have a strange talent for widening their films’ appeal far beyond what, on the surface, they should have. Knocked Up appealed to all ages, as did Superbad and as did The 40 Year Old Virgin – if you enjoyed any of those, you’ll not regret giving Pineapple Express a try.