Did your state just legalize marijuana? It will, you know. To borrow a phrase from a famous movie, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon… Let’s not wait until pot is legal everywhere, though, to have a fresh look at how Cheech Marin and Thomas Chong‘s first cannabis comedy Up in Smoke (1978) might play in today’s increasingly weed-friendly atmosphere.
I’ve never inhaled—and by that, I mean not only have I never ingested the psychoactive drug in any form (joint, cookie, or what have you), I also mean that in addition to those other Classic Movies I’ve Never (Yet) Seen, I’d never watched a Cheech and Chong flick from start to finish until just the other night.
Their mini-reign over the realm of raunch comedy got started a full year before I even saw My First R-rated Movie in the theaters—but even after I made my big leap to college, where I could more easily partake of whatever forbidden indulgences I might desire, I never had any substantial urge to cue up (toke up?) the counterculture duo’s cinematic exploits. In recent times, I’d started to think maybe I had been unduly influenced by many critics’ dismissals of their films as crude and unsophisticated (though Leonard Maltin’s guide rewards Up in Smoke with a fully respectable three stars); perhaps I’d been so brainwashed by the “Just Say No” campaigns of my youth that not only did I demur whenever presented with clear opportunities to have a taste of the real thing—I had dorm neighbors who were seriously devoted potheads—but was also somehow automatically averse to anything even remotely connected to America’s most notorious “gateway” drug.
Alcohol, which as most of us now know is far more toxic and dangerous than marijuana, didn’t represent that same kind of high-horsing moral obstacle to me…but those painful lessons may be better shared in an article revisiting Ironweed, or Barfly…or a Thin Man movie. With our national conversation now swirling (on and off) around the legalization of grass, I decided it was time to light up my screen with the first Cheech and Chong feature film comedy.
Up in Smoke was no slouch at the box office in 1978, raking in over $44 million during its theatrical run—a figure that blasted past its smallish budget and guaranteed sequels. So, it was certainly popular among many at the time, but…would I dig it? Could I dig it?
Let me just render my answer up front: Nope.
I was so hoping Up in Smoke would give me some big, if decidedly dumb and maybe dated, laughs. I wasn’t expecting Chaplin, or Billy Wilder; I wasn’t expecting Monty Python. Really, I wasn’t expecting The Three Stooges, or Borat, or the Farrelly Brothers. And in that sense, I definitely wasn’t disappointed, because I didn’t get anything like those reliably funny screen comedy acts. In fact, I didn’t get anything at all. The movie didn’t provoke a single laugh, a single chuckle, not one chortle, not one smile for me. If you don’t already know the story, here’s the story:
The movie begins with sound of snoring against black. (Oh, the foreshadowing!)
FADE UP and we meet bored stoner family man Pedro (Cheech), who realizes it’s time to hit the streets after smelling a child’s soiled diaper, stepping barefoot into a bowl of cereal, and absent-mindedly urinating into his bathroom hamper (the clothes, of course, are in the toilet). Cheech struts outside to a sassy lowrider he’s personally refurbished and styled “The Love Machine.” Parallel to this introduction, we meet slacker-stoner Anthony (Chong), who’s being upbraided by his dad (Strother Martin) for being jobless. Chong belches in dad’s face and takes to the road himself in a beat-up VW bug with a Rolls Royce grill slapped on the front. That car malfunctions, leaving him desperate and dirty by the side of the road.
(REVIEWUS INTERRUPTUS: I’ve just noticed I’ve already started mixing up and substituting “Cheech” and “Chong” for the scripted names of the characters. I think it’s fair to say that using the actual characters’ names is just as irrelevant now as it would have been then, so let’s dispense with any further pretense and just continue to call them Cheech and Chong, man.)
Cheech’s failed attempt to pick up two distressingly underage-looking girls who are sunning themselves in bikinis at the side of the road leads him to spot the hitching Chong, who has improvised himself a drag outfit (complete with ballooning fake breasts) to make himself a more attractive pickup. Once Cheech realizes Chong’s a man—the shaggy beard might be the dead giveaway—he nevertheless agrees to give him a ride to wherever he wants to go. They exchange some snappy, politically incorrect patter about getting high (“Let’s get Chinese eyes!”), share some personal details (“I been smokin’ since I was born”), engage in some surreal hijinks involving confusing one’s genitalia for a cigarette and smoking a massive spliff—that contains dog feces, as we learn—and then forge a spontaneous partnership to seek out a superior buzz together.
Thus are screen legends born.
Ambling through the film in a mental fog I suspect we’re meant to attribute to their years of smoking, snorting, dropping, and so on, the weed-seeking duo survives a variety of misadventures in the picaresque tradition. First, they hope to score by getting in touch with Cheech’s cousin, Strawberry (Tom Skerritt, a year before Alien would steer his career in an altogether different direction), whose house is being monitored by the gung-ho Sgt. Stedenko (Stacy Keach). Cheech and Chong escape Stedenko’s raid only to wind up getting deported to Tijuana–where they secure a van to drive themselves back across the border. The joke here is that the van is being used as a tool to secretly smuggle marijuana into the U.S. by having it sprayed with the miraculous synthetic “fiberweed”—essentially making the vehicle a two-ton rolling joint.
With Stedenko and his cloddish associates hot on their trail, C & C do make it back to America by inadvertently directing the attention of the law away from them and to a carload of nuns…who react with no shortage of glee to getting frisked. Funny…right?
Our heroes pick up promiscuous hitchhikers who join them on a quest to corral the members of Cheech’s rock band (Chong happens to be a drummer) to compete at an event where top prize is cash and a recording contract. In a climactic flurry of what some may regard as inspired foolishness, Stedenko’s squad masquerades as Hare Krishnas in an attempt to crash the concert, only to be turned away and sneered at by the gatekeepers who confuse the toga-wearers as gay (“Now I know why Anita Bryant’s so pissed!”)—leading to the crucial moment when the Fiberweed Van catches fire and releases a cloud of nirvana that gets the cops high with a case of pizza munchies, and then wafts its way into the concert venue…just in time to goose Cheech and Chong’s talents for rocking out.
The crowd, which had been booing and tossing garbage at them (understandably, as an already drugged-out Chong stumbled about the stage), now gets high, too, and cheers the pink tutu-wearing lead guitarist Cheech as he cuts loose with that first monster slash. Everyone goes wild!
Earlier I mentioned going into Up in Smoke with lowered expectations and not expecting C & C’s film to measure up to past great films by other legendary screen comedians. I should refine that a little by remarking that it did, at times, remind me of various Three Stooges shorts in its episodic construction. There’s a simple backbone to the story, but it serves primarily as window dressing for the individual sketches. What I found very hard to get around with this film—and I have no idea if this is true in their subsequent pictures—is that there are no characters for Cheech and Chong to play their comedy against; absolutely everyone in the story is a moron, a jerk, a fool, a clown, a dope, a deviant, and so on.
To me, this kind of film works best when the idiotic or anarchic characters have “normal” people to interact with, or characters that exist in an entirely different social class—this is a key element that fuels great comedy from Chaplin to the Stooges, to the Marxes, all the way to Borat and beyond—and, apart from the token scene at the beginning with Chong’s filthy layabout clashing with his snooty, upper-class parents, this is entirely lost to the world of this movie. It’s just our dim-witted stoners interacting with one jackass after the other. It might be funny for a split second, I suppose, that a young woman Chong runs across mistakes Ajax for coke, and snorts it all up—but you could just as easily see either Cheech or Chong making the same error a minute later.
For an R-rated film, too, this is pretty tame stuff. I’m no moviegoing prude and I can easily enjoy movies designed to offend by pursuing the lowest vulgarities for a laugh—but I confess it’s a little hard for me to understand exactly how, even then, the material here would be thought of as so very appalling, apart from the omnipresence of illegal drugs—which, to make another reference to films I mentioned earlier, doesn’t itself even seem so out-of-bounds when you consider how many martinis Nick Charles would toss back over the course of an hour and a half. The movie’s big “topless” scene even has the actress keep her back to the camera; if you’re gonna have an R-rated movie, let’s get with it, man.
(There is nudity represented in the film. It comes in the form of a picture taped to a bathroom stall door. This is what I think should be generously referred to as a “wasted opportunity.”)
No doubt my appraisal of Cheech and Chong’s smash debut will meet with less resistance here than the time I dared to ask whether or not W.C. Fields could still be considered funny; I’d ask readers who may be fans to clue me in on what I’m missing, but I’m not sure explanations are ever likely to persuade a viewer to laugh when there’s no natural impulse to do so. Are their albums funnier? Are other of their films better? I thought they were pretty damn funny in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours—but they had only a small recurring role, and that movie knows full well how to handle comedy. And drugs. My experience watching this was a major disappointment. I really wanted to be hip to their jive.
By the time Chong sparked that final roach and the fellas, yes, drove off into the sunset, I realized the movie was telling me right up front what might truly be the secret to enjoying it. It may well be that if (sorry, when) pot becomes legal everywhere, movies like this could lose their edge; but in any case, to enjoy this film at all, maybe you have to be just like the kids in the concert hall at the end. Sober, they booed. High as a kite, they cheered. Marijuana isn’t legal in my neck of the woods just yet, though, so I guess my appreciation of Up in Smoke will have to wait until I can be as pleasantly wasted as its protagonists.