25 September 2008

Smiley Face

Directed by: Gregg Araki
Written by: Dylan Haggerty
Full credits from IMDb

Unfortunately, Smiley Face is not immune from adopting some of the stoner movie’s most tiresome clich├ęs. Please, can we have a moratorium on the talking dogs? But otherwise, Gregg Araki’s (practically) straight-to-DVD potxpolitation flick might still be the best of its ilk—not that that says much—thanks to two virtues: its star, Anna Faris (Scary Movies 1-4), and its director’s sharp, subjective expression of the out-of-sober experience. (In contrast to Pineapple Express, which garnered most of its laughs by allowing the audience to assume an objective standpoint and therefore laugh, condescendingly, at its stoner protagonists.)

Araki’s previous film, Mysterious Skin, laughlessly tackled teenagers coping with childhood sex abuse. Here, he tackles how an unemployed actress’ whole day can be thrown off-kilter when she makes short order of a tray of marijuana-laced cupcakes. Tonally, and subject-wise, it’s a very different kind of movie from the New Queer dramas for which Araki is primarily known; it’s a kind of one-day Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, as Faris travels from an audition to a dentist to a slaughterhouse. But the alternating wonder and nightmare she experiences don’t result from anything inherent in the world she inhabits, as Pee-Wee’s were a result of Tim Burton’s psychotropic set design; they’re only in the way she perceives it.

From a purely objective point of view, the film would play out as a mundane series of errands—which might explain why Pineapple Express relied on police corruption and gang wars to liven things up; here, Araki frequently enters us into Faris’ mindset, more in line with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, capturing the scatterthought, short-attention-span absent mindedness and slow-motion paranoia of being high—the way quotidian minutiae can seem sinister when stripped of their context (e.g. the softly beeping smoke alarm presented as a shrill siren); how cruel and hostily impatient people can treat others; and how easily minor problems compound and escalate.

Araki’s knowing details—Faris is dependent on to-do-list making and smitten with her comfortable bed, just like my (lovely) stoner girlfriend—lend the ostensibly sitcomish (TV-MA!) and episodic proceedings a measure of credibility, as does Faris’ performance. A critical darling without, hitherto, a movie on which to hang her reputation (save perhaps this one), Faris proves her comic mastery in the simple way she slumps on a couch—legs akimbo, arms dangling—or the way she heaves after a run—easily the funniest breathing I’ve ever seen (outside of cartoons). She is perpetually confused and easily frightened, her red-rimmed eyes a dead giveaway to her inebriation, but she doesn’t assume an idiotic smirk a la Jim Breuer; she is never less than a real person, a sweet and utterly pitiable kid even as she gets into trouble—and even though the audience is well aware that it’s her own damn fault for being so damn high! (Given how acutely stoned she is, it seems more likely that she ate psychedelic-mushroom cupcakes.)

Faris’ sympathetic portrayal helps Smiley Face build to an ambiguous conclusion: superficially, it seems conspicuously, and disappointingly, propagandistic, in that Faris is arrested and punished for her misdeeds over the last 80 minutes; marijuana is illegal and the transgressors must be disciplined. But on the other hand, the finale is a bit more subversive, from the way it leaflets L.A. with "The Communist Manifesto" to the fact that not only is Faris super-likable but it’s not like she ever hurt anyone! Her arrest, then, might be meant to be less of an illustration of a necessary punitive measure than just another illustration of how mean the sober world can be. Grade: B

Watch the trailer:

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