Read more from Slate’s Summer Movies.
Nearly every summer, the High Times set puts down their gravity bongs, turns off Reading Rainbow, and emerges from the safe confines of their parents’ basements to descend upon America’s multiplexes for a no less glorious occasion than the summer stoner movie. Not to be confused with films like Winged Migration, Wizard of Oz, or Muppets Take Manhattan—however beloved by tokers they may be—the proper stoner movie is by, for, and about pot smokers. These are not movies where a lone joint is passed around in a party scene. Instead, the stoner film shows serious commitment to smoking and acquiring marijuana as a lifestyle choice.
For years, stoners were forced to champion cult classics, like the 1950s anti-drug morality tale Reefer Madness, watch Easy Rider, or settle for nature shows. That ended with the arrival of the spiritual fathers of the genre. The comedy duo of Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong made 10 movies and as many comedy albums in the 1970s and 1980s. In their first film, Up in Smoke (1978), the two drive around in Cheech’s lowrider (license plates: MUF DVR) while smoking a joint the size of a burrito. Spectacular hijinks ensue, including jail time, Tijuana, and the construction of a van made entirely of marijuana. The climactic scene alone involves groupies, punk bands, and policemen undercover as Hare Krishnas.
The Cheech and Chong films created a template from which stoner movies rarely veer: two guys + a big bag of weed + some kind of task to complete = awesome times. By simply existing, stoner movies also point out that movies are sort of silly, which can be refreshing in this age of bloated three-hour-long Spider-Man sequels. Even better, all the awesomeness happens in no more than 90 minutes. The brevity of the stoner movie is partly necessity—must wrap up the action before the buzz wears off—but is also the source of their brilliance. That short running time in no way hinders the maximalism of the genre, as they are packed with more adventure than any swashbuckling epic.
In Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), the simple task of going on a burger run involves a rabid raccoon, a trip to Princeton University, and former child star Neil Patrick Harris (as himself) peaking on ecstasy. In The Big Lebowski (1998), the quest undertaken by The Dude—a character who inspires annual festivals and an award for “stony achievement in film”—involves bowling teams, German nihilists, White Russians, radical feminists, and kidnapping. In Rolling Kansas (2003), siblings Dink, Dick, and Dave (if that’s not inherently hilarious to you, feel free to skip this one) look for a magical forest of weed on government property via a map bequeathed to them by their imprisoned flower child parents. Dude, Where’s My Car’s (2000) titular task is interrupted by cruel jocks, trips to a drive-through Chinese restaurant, and saving the world from an alien weapon. It should go without saying that suspension of disbelief is essential here.
But even if stoners manage to save the world, these aren’t action movies, which have violence and suspense, two things that could totally harsh a stoner out. Rather, the dark side of smoking pot is the constant specter of paranoia. The opening scene of Super Troopers (2001), in which a carful of Vermont potheads goes from debating whether if you own beach property you also own the sand and the water to a full-blown highway car chase, is a perfect example. Besides the act of looking for marijuana, the other main activity in a stoner movie is escaping authority figures (often the police, but occasionally campus security guards, co-workers, or parents) who don’t just oppose the stoner’s flagrant drug usage but their lifestyle of leisure and innocence.
Even though a lot happens in stoner movies, these films don’t require your full attention—you can go pay the pizza delivery guy or get sidetracked by a friend quoting the “It’d be a lot cooler if you did” rejoinder from Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993) and never miss anything essential to the plot. And, in between images of hot boxing in cars and stoners snacking on Funyuns, these movies depict surprisingly tender portrayals of male friendship: Cheech and Chong, Bill and Ted, Wayne and Garth, Harold and Kumar. All of them provide for plenty of “I love you, man” moments. Girls are usually relegated to less nuanced roles, as strippers, curse-spewing old ladies, or the long-suffering girlfriend. Director Gregg Araki’s Smiley Face, which stars Anna Faris and comes out in late July, will be the first stoner movie to proudly feature a female protagonist.
While pothead movies invariably include middle-class white hippies, they’re also some of the most racially and ethnically diverse movies around—Cheech and Chong, Chris Tucker and Ice Cube in the Friday movies, John Cho and Kal Penn in Harold and Kumar (plus their Jewish stoner neighbors Rosenberg and Goldstein), Redman and Method Man in How High, and Dave Chapelle and Guillermo Diaz in Half Baked. Being a pothead can be just another persistent racial stereotype, but these movies treat their protagonists with the utmost affection, showing them as exemplary citizens who aren’t lawbreakers so much as rogue individualists who refuse to play the corporate game. The stoner movie provides a way for celebrities who do play the corporate game to wink at the college crowd and show off a little outlaw cred. Thus, they are a paradise for cameos, from Snoop Dogg and Willie Nelson to Fabio and Jon Stewart.
Movie studios seem to have a decidedly more conflicted relationship with the genre. In the words of director Tamra Davis in the commentary for Half Baked, “You just can’t believe they let you make a movie like this.” Her movie made about four times its modest $10 million budget but was pulled from screens after just a few weeks because kids were smoking pot in the theaters—something the studio was happy to profit from but did not want to be responsible for.
“Stoner movies without weed should have been like ‘Star Wars’ without the Force, or ‘Titanic’ without the iceberg,” writes an Australian blogger who points out that movies like the Wayne’s World and Bill and Ted franchises clearly are about stoners, even if they don’t ever explicitly state that. According to the protests of actors Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott, the original Dude, Where’s My Car? script had multiple pot-smoking scenes. But the two stars were already hugely popular with teens and the studio wanted them to appear in a film with a PG-13 rating, which forbids portrayals of drug use. In the end, only a dog is allowed to take a hit off a pipe and the actors are left assuring us in the commentary how stoned they really were. Danny Leiner, the director, went on to make Harold and Kumar, which heralded a return to R-rated stoner movies.
So must one actually be stoned to even enjoy a stoner movie? It probably helps if you know how to turn an apple into a smoking device or can tell Maui Wowie from Acapulco Gold, but you really don’t have to even like smoking pot to enjoy them. Anyone can appreciate the values of stoner movies, which function as motivational tools for the highly unmotivated. Walking out of a stoner movie, there is a certain kind of enlightenment: a feeling that you can face whatever dangers the world offers, joint in hand or not.