Judd Apatow had a problem. The test screenings for his movie The 40-Year-Old Virgin were killing. But the jokes that were really landing were the ones featuring pot. Sophomoric, Cheech-and-Chong-y cheap yuks about weed. But funny ones. He called his old friend Garry Shandling to ask whether he should leave them in. They went with the only responsible choice: comedy comes first.
The film opened, and nobody made a big deal about the pot. Nor did Apatow get called out when the lead character in his next big hit, Knocked Up, was an inveterate stoner. And on Aug. 8, Pineapple Express, which he produced, arrives; it's named after a particularly potent (and fictional) strain of Cannabis sativa.
Time was, pot movies were like Grateful Dead concerts or parent-teacher conferences: you had to be wasted to enjoy them. And the genre had two tones, either apoplectic or apologist. But this summer is bringing us a bumper crop of movies and TV shows--Pineapple Express, The Wackness, Humboldt County and Showtime's Weeds among them--with THC in their DNA. Not stoner stories so much as plots that happen to involve pot, they ask, 37 years after the war on drugs was declared, whether there's a place in the culture for treatments of pot that neither criminalize nor celebrate it.
Marijuana is growing onscreen while use of the drug, which has been widespread for nigh on 40 years, is flattening. About 6% of Americans smoked it regularly in 2002, and about 6% of them lit up in 2006. And no, it's not the same 15 million stoners. Many users tend to pick it up in their teens, then drop it in their 20s. And 50% of them don't use any other drugs. Selling it is still illegal, but the pot dealer is no longer the panic-inducing bogeyman he used to be. In movieland, he's become a stock character, about as threatening as the hot woman's quirky roommate.
But funnier. "I'm always a proponent for the comedy involved in people who are under the influence," says Apatow. "I just think it's fun watching anyone acting like an idiot." Alcohol, the comic intoxicant of choice for generations of filmmakers, is now too strongly associated in people's minds with spousal battery and drunk driving to be truly hilarious.
Gandhi Does Ganja
So ran a recent headline on a story about Sir Ben Kingsley's appearance in The Wackness, a genial coming-of-age film in which Kingsley plays a shrink who trades therapy for dope and eventually joins his young patient Luke in dealing drugs. "For me, the pot was just a device," says Kingsley. "Through it we tell the lovely story of a fatherless child and childless father. And because I become his assistant in dealing with the stuff he's selling, I'm revealed to be the child."
Although their new movies feature drugs, Sir Ben and Apatow rarely use the D word when discussing them, as if willing pot out of delinquency and into mere dysfunction. For The Wackness, weed's a crutch; it takes the edge off loneliness, ennui or the shyness people feel around the opposite sex. Luke, the dealer, lives on Manhattan's Upper East Side and is on his way to college--his safety school, but still. In Weeds, Mary-Louise Parker's a pot dealer who sells to successful, bored, suburban business types. Even the protagonists of Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantánamo Bay, the closest thing we have to a modern Cheech and Chong, are a banker and a med student. Pot smokers aren't outsiders anymore; at worst, they're arrested adolescents.
The cultural disconnect between marijuana (the illegal drug) and pot (that stuff that lots of regular people consume) is the comic fulcrum of Pineapple Express, in which a process server (Seth Rogen) and his pot dealer (James Franco) earn the ire of risibly bloodthirsty marijuana kingpins. Their escape is hampered, of course, by the fact that they're stoned. It's a high action comedy. Literally.
Audiences appear ready for such a thing--even beyond those 15 million people, many of prime moviegoing age, who share the protagonists' appetites. Pot films are making out like criminals. The second of Harold and Kumar's trips, not nearly as critically acclaimed as the first, nevertheless did twice as well at the box office. And while the presence of (legal) tobacco cigarettes in films has become a cause célèbre among public-health advocates, there's not a lot of protest that putting pot in movies, even ones as silly as Pineapple Express, glamorizes it.
Except maybe from the film's cast and crew. "Seth and I always argue whether or not this is an anti-pot movie," says Apatow. "To me, it clearly is. Most of the film is people trying to murder these two guys, them trying not to get murdered, and it's all because they're smoking pot." He pauses. "Seth thinks that's too subtle."