Friday, February 08, 2008

I don't think that really qualifies as Reaganomics.

Stoner comedies are populated by jocular male protagonists whose red-eyed triumps are designed to provoke blazed audience members into paroxysms of self-congradulatory hi-fives. Jane F. (Anna Faris), the perpetually high protagonist of Smiley Face, is notable not only because of her gender but as an avatar not for the Cheech and Chong demographic but for the pothead whose addiction is a symptom of the user's sense of alienation. While Smiley Face is lighter and less didactic than director Gregg Araki's previous movies, it shares with them a sincere empathy for its fucked-up heroine. Whenever Jane apologizes for her behavior by explaining "I'm really stoned right now," it somehow seems like a completely reasonable self-defense.

Like the journeys in many stoner movies, Jane's is a meandering and often incoherent one. Already taking bong rips at nine in the morning, Jane's situation is complicated when she devours a plate of cupcakes intended for her creepy roomate's (Danny Masterson) sci-fi convention - unbeknownst to her, they're pot cupcakes, and Jane finds herself extremely stoned (this is, like, the best plot summary ever). Barely functional, Jane sets about completing a list of goals for the day, including buying more pot to replace the cupcakes, going to an acting audition (Jane lives off of residuals from one commercial) and somehow finding the money to pay her overdue power bill and repay her angry dealer (Adam Brody) so that he doesn't take her beloved bed. Needless to say, Jane quickly strays very far from the plan, repeatedly scaring the straights, fleeing from the police and inadvertently stealing an original copy of The Communist Manifesto. The story will be very familiar for anyone who has seen previous stoner comedies (or anyone who has smoked a lot of weed), but even as Smiley Face nods to audience expectations - retro cameos, kitschy soundtrack, trippy animated titles - it also works as an insightful character study. Like the smiley face Jane writes in the sky that suddenly transforms into a screaming skull, the movie's deceptively dopey antics mask the character's underlying social anxiety.

During an argument about Reganomics with her dealer, Jane offhandedly reveals that she studied economics in college but, she explains with a shrug, "economics didn't really work out." Faris does an excellent job with a deceptively one-note performance; in Jane's dialated pupils we can discern traces of a serious-minded young woman driven by disillusionment into the security blanket of a permanent purple haze. Besides pot, Jane seems to care mostly about corn chips and her comfy bed; she seems indifferent, even apprehensive about sex and relationships, partly using pot as a way of shielding herself against any meaningful human connection.
Her apathy is understandable given the hostility directed at her - rather than the square-jawed, ineffectual narcs that usually populate these movies, the norms Jane encounters treat her with genuine contempt, one character telling her, "You creep me out, lady." When Jane does attempt to voice her ideas, railing against corporate injustice (in the funniest scene in the movie), we're first given Jane's quite articulate and passionate inner monologue, then what she actually said. It's a hilarious, perfect illustration of the stoner paradox: the emergence of a wealth of insight that the user is then completely unable to communicate in any meaningful way.

Smiley Face falls apart towards the end, arriving at its conclusion a bit too soon - whether this is the result of budget cuts or a shortcoming of Araki's (The Doom Generation was similarly abrupt) is unclear. The relationship between Jane and her dorky secret admirer Brevin (John Krasinski), set up in a weirdly endearing falling-in-love montage, is particularly shortchanged. These flaws sort of work for the movie: as with The Big Lebowski and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the narrative's gradual dissolution mirrors the drug experience ("Wait, what?"). Smiley Face doesn't really match those movies, which were brilliantly stupid; Araki's occasional tendency towards an obnoxious literal-mindedness keep his film from reaching those heights. Those moments are smoothed over by Faris, an actress who has done hilarious work in dreck and, it seems, was waiting for a part this rich to show what she was capable of - few performances in 2007 were so layered and subtle while also excelling at pratfalls and funny faces. Smiley Face isn't a great film, but Faris provides it with a heart, and you don't have to be stoned to see that.


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