There’s something so charming about a stoner comedy done right, and something equally insufferable about a stoner comedy done wrong. It’s a fine line to walk, mostly because being stoned out of your gourd is always a more interesting experience when you’re the one having it. A lot of stoner films fail to capture that feeling, and end up being more like the experience of hanging out with a stoned person when you’re sober. Gregg Araki’s Smiley Face succeeds on the back of an aesthetic recreation of what it’s like to be high, rather than being around someone who’s high.
The film’s editing is its MVP. Director Gregg Araki edited the film himself, and he does a fantastic job of imitating the brainwave rhythms of stoned protagonist Jane F. The film floats aimlessly between ideas and events, down a stream of consciousness without a paddle. Intentions and characters are introduced and forgotten and picked up again at the slightest external stimulus. A single half-remembered line of dialogue instigates a total change of direction for Jane. Sometimes she just forgets that she’s supposed to be doing anything and stares into space for a while. Other times her brain concots sprawling fantasies that quickly spin-off into obscurity and nonsense. This is what I mean when I say that Smiley Face does a good job of cinematically approximating what it’s like to be stoned. You’re forced to live inside these editing beats, sharing Jane’s headspace. It makes a journey that may otherwise have been frustrating actually watchable and fun.
And you can’t discount the impact of Anna Faris’ performance in that. A lot of actors are too buttoned-up to play stoned as anything but parody. Faris is doing heightened work, to be sure, but in a way that plays as authentic. For as big as this performance is, you never really feel her capital-A Acting. She’s also just hysterically funny. The look of genuine horror on her face as she wildly imagines a scenario where her creepy roommate has sex with skulls slew me, as did her reaction to seeing an “I Heart LAPD” sticker on a casting agent’s filing cabinet. Every expression and gesticulation feels unrehearsed and unrefined, like she really is just making it up as she goes along. I don’t think Faris gets enough credit for her ability to do that. A lot of actors, even great ones, just can’t get that loose.
The politics of Smiley Face are delightfully inscrutable. There’s a running thread about a first-edition copy of the Communist Manifesto, which Jane imagines selling online for hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s a cheeky bit of commentary on the way communism as an ideology can be absorbed and repackaged for sale by capitalism, even out of necessity by the people living in it. By the film’s end, the book is “redistributed,” so to speak. While things don’t end well for Jane, there’s a victory in removing the Manifesto from a realm where only the wealthy can access it and giving it back to the people. Araki shows some skepticism about communism, too. In one of my favorite scenes, Jane imagines herself giving a stirring speech about the rights of the humble laborer and the need for revolution. When she’s done, Araki replays the moment to show what actually happened: Jane rambling through unfinished, meaningless sentences and being thrown out of the butcher’s warehouse where she was making her “stand.” Maybe Araki is more concerned with people who make their politics their sole personality trait. 12 years later, you can hardly blame him for it.
I got a kick out of Smiley Face. It’s a far cry from the avant-garde queer apocalypse in Nowhere, the only other Araki film I’ve seen (though it does directly reference that film’s opening shot). But as stoner comedies go, I’ve seen few that do a better job of letting you in on the experience of getting zooted to the freaking moon. Also, please cast Anna Faris in more movies. It’s insane that she hasn’t had a lead role this entire decade.