As revered among the cult crowd as it may be now, Up in Smoke was a movie destined to be misunderstood upon its initial release. Critics walked into it expecting a tight, fairly straightforward comedy from Cheech and Chong (a countercultural comedy team that had been performing for ten years before the thought of making a movie together crossed their minds), and instead got something that… wasn’t really that.
Some enjoyed it for what it was (the controversial Pauline Kael favorably compared it to The Groove Tube*, noting that it was “also crudely done but is more consistently funny”), but despite the film making a ton of money ($104 million against a $2 million budget), most others were not so kind, with Gene Siskel naming it “one of the most juvenile, poorly written, awkwardly directed pictures I have ever seen.” Even so, the film still holding a “Rotten” score—50% at the moment, to be more precise—on Rotten Tomatoes is pretty mind-boggling to me… though not nearly as mind-boggling as the site’s first book, Rotten Movies We Love, not saying one thing about it. Not. One. Single. Thing.
I’m trying to come up with a logical explanation for why they ignored such a hugely trend-setting element of stoner culture so badly**, but considering that the book covers movies that are “People’s Choice[s]” (check), “Ahead of Their Time” (double check), and even “Cult Leaders” (triple—nay, quadruple—check), it’s literally impossible. To ignore this classic—if, yes, flawed—comedy would be to ignore an undeniable part of American history, as well as the proud birth of a genre loved by rebels, college kids, and potheads everywhere. And that alone makes it heavy stuff, man.
Even with its frequent silliness and, er, slightly disjointed (“joint”… get it?) events threatening to overbear it, Up in Smoke is always held together by the impeccable chemistry between its two leads: Anthony “Man” Stoner (Tommy Chong), and Pedro De Pacas (Cheech Martin). We first meet the former as he’s suddenly given an ultimatum by his overbearing parents: get a job by sundown, or be booted right to military school. Preferring neither, he speeds off from their posh house in a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle convertible, yet is forced to abandon it once it starts, um, smoking profusely. (OK, I’ll stop with the drug jokes now. I’ll stop.)
Conveniently enough, Pedro happens to be driving down the same road that Anthony’s hitchhiking on, and, fooled by the latter’s physical appearance (read: “chest size”) into thinking he’s a woman, picks up the wayward stranger. As you might expect, the two strike up an instant friendship, and start smoking a massive joint together. The only problem with that, however, is that the joint is made out of… well, that particular reveal is best left unspoiled, but suffice it to say that aficionados of toilet humor will be howling with glee upon hearing it. I normally don’t go for such crassness, but it’s delivered with such restraint and cleverness here (particularly by the standards of the Happy Madison “comedies” churned out today) that even I couldn’t help chuckling a bit.
To say that there isn’t much of a plot to Up in Smoke would be akin to saying the sky is blue, but a semi-story does eventually kick in. Towards the end, Anthony and Pedro get deported to Tijuana and, in attempt to get back to the United States, unknowingly wind up smuggling a van completely made out of marijuana over the American border. On top of all that, a TV program actually “explains” how such objects could be made out of material like that, and the moment singlehandedly makes the entire film worth seeing. I’m not joking.
As this is a comedy essentially glorifying pot smoking, the police officers chasing after the two are predictably portrayed as clumsy, dimwitted cartoon characters that can’t ever catch up to them, yet are never hesitant to swoop down on anyone else with even one roll of the stuff. Fortunately, these caricatures are far more silly than mean, but they still serve as a gently effective reminder of the times Cheech and Chong were living in while creating the film.
But Up in Smoke isn’t meant to be some kind of vital history lesson. It’s a comedy where nothing makes sense, most everything’s entertaining as a barrel of monkeys, and the real heroes are MJ, rock music, and—in the case of the perfectly outlandish climax—a riotous combination of both. No wonder it caught on with other disillusioned slackers so quickly.
*Previous to writing this review, I hadn’t really heard of The Groove Tube before, but looking it up now, it doesn’t look to be much more than a witless, juvenile collection of “LOL so random” nonsense. Perhaps if I was a historian researching stuff that was “trendy” in the 1970s, I might give it an inquisitive watch, but otherwise, I think I’ll pass.
**Yeah, yeah, I know that 1936’s Reefer Madness is widely seen as the first stoner comedy ever (despite it actually trying to be a serious anti-drug movie), but Up in Smoke is the first intentional stoner comedy ever. Both films are probably still great fun to watch with friends, of course.