The essence of stoner comedy is the unlikely triumph of the seemingly maladjusted stoner over normalized, disapproving society—Cheech & Chong miraculously arriving in time to Battle of the Bands, Harold & Kumar finally reaching White Castle. As the above duos imply, camaraderie is a big deal, and victory arrives in the most unlikely ways. So I’m not sure if Smiley Face—Gregg Araki’s technically untitled new film—counts as a member of the genre: pitting one Jane F. (Anna Faris) against a world that ranges from indifferent to actively hostile, Smiley Face’s main innovation is making Anna lose big and end up alone.
During the utterly ineffectual D.A.R.E. anti-drug-abuse indoctrination we received in elementary school, we were informed that pot was a gateway drug that would, sooner or later, lead us directly to heroin, financial ruin and death; it was only after a few years that I began to realize this was untrue. But Jane makes pot look like an even less healthy option than hard-core opiates; they should’ve just shown us this. At her functional peak, it’s morning: the first bong hits of the day are being taken, the Stone Roses are playing in the background. (Araki’s hipster soundtrack is typically impeccable, concluding with the ironic coup of R.E.O. Speedwagon’s “Keep On Lovin’ You,” but still: he’s showing his age with that music cue.) Unfortunately, pot makes Jane hungry, and hunger leads her to consume the cupcakes her roommate’s made for a sci-fi convention ... and said cupcakes turn out to be pot cupcakes. Barely mobile at this point of excessive THC consumption, Jane sets out to tackle the glad new day—to pay the electric bill before the lights go off, to pay back her dealer before he takes her furniture, to buy more pot for her roommate, to ace a crucial acting audition, etc. None of these things are accomplished.
Smiley Face is a comedy of failure. Faris proves a surprisingly game actress; it may be the best one-note performance of the year. Nonetheless, most of the laughs are directed against her, not with her, as in moments where she attempts to explain gaffes to strangers by blurting out, “I’m really stoned, sorry,” as if that were an acceptable excuse in polite society. Faris has one triumphant monologue linking a picture of corn to President James Garfield in five easy steps; it’s an instant classic, the purest depiction of stoner non sequitur I’ve seen on-screen. Most of the time, though, she’s a walking punchline.
What’s going on here, I think, is mumblecore through a marijuana haze: Behind Jane’s surprisingly depressing hijinks is post-grad malaise: a rare copy of the Communist Manifesto drives a lot of the plot, with Jane occasionally delivering moments of lucid intelligence to remind us that she must’ve learned something in college. Her dealer’s in the same boat (they have an argument about whether or not the economics of drug dealing could justifiably be labeled Reaganomics). Jane is stoned all the time, practically comatose; it’s depression disguised as wackiness. Which is why—despite the hit-and-miss jokes that keep Smiley Face consistently engaging and occasionally hilarious—it’s the most depressing comedy of the year.