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If you have nothing with which to pay, why should your bed be taken from under you? Proverbs 22:27

 

Perhaps the greatest American film, Smiley Face (2007, dir. Gregg Araki), like many of the stoner comedies that I have seen, narrates the events of one long day. What can we say about this day? Well, it’s a weekday for one thing. And with an emphatic shot of a vintage clock, we know it’s relatively early.   Jane (Anna Faris) is sitting on the couch in her living room, smoking weed out of a bong and playing a video game on her laptop. The scene is sweet and calm, Jane high and happy. Money—I mean disaster— has not yet entered her morning. Until it does, Jane’s day is pristine.

 

But it doesn’t take long for her mellow to be harshed. Jane is high. And hungry. Eager to tend to her own reproduction, she opens the refrigerator. In there, she sees a tray full of delicious looking cupcakes which her roommate Steve has baked for the sci-fi nerd convention he’s hosting later that night in their apartment. And while Steve’s taken care to adorn the cupcakes with a sign specifically forbidding Jane from eating them, she can’t resist. “I’ll just bake some new cupcakes for Steve,” Jane thinks, thus establishing what she thinks will be a benign domestic debt. This debt will have terrible consequences.

 

For a little while after she passionately devours all of the cupcakes, Jane realizes “the true nature of the cupcakes.” She becomes about as stoned as a character in any film has ever been. Time simultaneously dilates and contracts. Somehow, after a frozen spell, she’s able to begin formulating a way to pay her way out of this debt. This, of course, will also require spending money, as weed cupcakes include one niche ingredient. She calls her weed dealer, whose name is also Steve.

 

 

The exchange with Steve the Dealer is the first inkling in Smiley Face of the film’s central themes, which are crises of money, labor, and reproduction. Sitting on the couch together, sampling Steve’s wares, he delivers a brief mansplanation on the praxis of weed dealing itself, as “Reaganomics.” Jane, incredibly high as she is, demurs, retorting that Steve’s offering goods for a price is “simple laissez faire capitalism.” Steve foolishly dismisses Jane’s argument by asking shittily, “what do you know about economics?” “I majored in economics,” Jane says.

 

This conversation sours Steve, and as he leaves he demands that Jane pay him the full price for the weed she has purchased to bake Steve’s cupcakes. When she protests that she’s out of money, he threatens to repossess her most prized possession: her bed.   Steve demands she meet him in Venice at the Hemp Festival to hand over the money.   While it’s been a challenging morning, Jane’s plan is still intact. All she has left to do is bake the cupcakes, go to the bank machine to withdraw the money for Steve the Dealer, pay him off, and life presumably resumes its easy, stoney tempo.

 

 

But once again, the money economy intrudes on Jane’s plan. For as the butter melts in a skillet on the stove, huge tufts of kush incorporating into fatty foam, her agent calls to remind her that she has an audition that morning. Forced to attend to the conversation with her agent (which she is far too high to conduct), the butter /weed mixture on the stove first scorches, then burns irrevocably. This forces Jane into yet another set of economic transactions. She has a reserve bag of “government weed,” which she is now compelled to sell, in order to purchase more weed, pay off Steve, bake more cupcakes, and thus settle both of her new debts.

 

The rest of Smiley Face narrates Jane’s thwarted odyssey. Everywhere she travels, she is confronted by a host of external obstacles to her flourishing. Bosses and cops proliferate in every site she visits, all successful in delaying Jane from accomplishing her otherwise straightforward agenda. Of course, as with every stoner comedy that I have seen, there are internal obstacles as well. Jane is unbelievably high, and makes very questionable decisions.[1] As well, as the scenario becomes thornier and resolution much more unlikely, Jane begins to exhibit signs of paranoia and despair. These episodes are quickly forgotten, but haunt Jane’s movements as the film progresses.

 

Smiley Face is remarkable for a number of innovations in the stoner comedy genre. For one, while Jane occasionally tries to find a buddy to help her solve her fiscal crisis, she finally undertakes this odyssey all alone. I’ve already mentioned the incredible homosociality of the stoner comedies that I have seen, and Jane is the first—and as yet only—female lead character. Spoiler: Jane unlike all other stoner comedy protagonists does not manage to overcome the obstacles set against her. And surely Smiley Face is the only stoner comedy to incorporate a manuscript of Communist Manifesto as a key Macguffin. But one thing that Smiley Face and almost all other stoner comedies I have seen have in common is that nobody goes to work.

 

If characters do work in stoner comedies, the events of their long day or night are often the catalyst for quitting or losing those jobs. Chester and Jesse quit their jobs in Dude, Where’s My Car? Kumar perpetually sabotages the realization of his father’s dream that he become a doctor, while Harold is empowered to shout down his boss in Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle. In Smiley Face, Jane not only fails to land her audition, she accrues escalating social and financial debt, and ends up in prison.

 

The problem of work is another theme which can be found in Odyssey. Odysseus, as a feudal lord, obviously doesn’t have to “work” in any legible sense of the word. And even when he returns to Ithaca and needs to disguise his identity, he appears as a beggar in drag, rather than a swineherd or laborer. This idleness is not finally permissible. Odysseus pretends to require the philanthropy of the suitors, and is compelled in turn to entertain them with minstrelsy. It’s when he “quits his job” near the end of the poem that his ultimate victory is assured.

 

 

But, of course, Jane is not Odysseus. Odysseus is a land-rich noble with great possessions, movable and immovable capital, a crafty motherfucker with a taste for blood and revenge. We on the other hand are Jane, forced to decide between a comfortable and delightful bed, or weed cupcakes. Two things no human should be deprived of. Is it any surprise that so many of us, exhausted, depleted, wasted by the jobs we’re forced to procure and maintain—often because of the contingency and demands of outlandish debt—want to cap the long day with a long hit of Romulan?

 

The stoner comedies that I have seen adapt themselves to this brief window of the work-evening, insinuating that we must change our lives. We must make them more rich with friendships. We must deprive the reign of wage. We must not jeopardize the journeys we dream of completing because of any fucking cop or boss who intervene to stop us. Perversely, stoner comedies may suggest that weed is another obstacle to our flourishing. But who would want a life without a few hijinks? Just be careful of strange cupcakes. Be careful of paying suit where you aren’t welcomed. Be careful of guys named Steve.

 

– BRANDON BROWN

Brandon Brown is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Flowering Mall.  He writes about art and culture for Open Space, the magazine and blog of the SFMOMA and Bay Area journal Art Practical.  He is an editor at Krupskaya, and occasionally publishes small press materials under the imprint OMG!  In 2014, Big Lucks will publish a new book, Shadow Lanka.

 

[1] Even past decisions come back to haunt her on this long and arduous day. Standing in front of the ATM, she finds that there is no money in her bank account. At first shocked, she recalls a day in the near past, when, also utterly high, she spent $1,000 on that prized and delightful bed.

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Published May 13, 2014 - Comments Off

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