Monday, January 28, 2013

Cheech & Chong's Up in Smoke (1978)

I can't remember ever watching a stoner flick prior to watching this movie. I've seen plenty of movies that had some classic stoner comedy in it, like National Lampoon's Animal House or Fast Times at Ridgemont High. These movies, however, were concerned with a lot more than getting high. While I certainly knew that Cheech & Chong had a lot of drug humor in their comedy act, I was a lot more familiar with their shtick like "Basketball Jones" or "Sister Mary Elephant". These days, Cheech Marin has morphed into a supporting actor in films like Tin Cup or From Dusk till Dawn, or TV's Nash Bridges. As for Tommy Chong, well, he's the father of 80s actress Rae Dawn Chong, right?

Since I was looking for a mindless movie to watch, I decided to clear Cheech & Chong's Up in Smoke off my Netflix queue where it had been taking up space for a long time. The film was pretty much as I expected. The characters played by Cheech and Chong meet, discover that they have a passion in common for getting high as often as possible, find themselves in crazy situations as a result of pursuing this passion, and somehow stay a step ahead of law enforcement officials. Sometimes I laughed, sometimes I cringed. Quality-wise, I thought it was on par with Adam Sandler movies of the last decade or so -- but funnier. Lou Adler's direction is actually pretty good, and the cinematography is surprisingly lush and colorful.

The set piece of the movie has the potheads driving a van made of marijuana across the border from Mexico to the United States. Stacy Keach has a one-note role as a cop pursuing this van. Strother Martin and Edie Adams have small roles as the parents of Chong's character. Tom Skerritt plays a friend of Cheech's character, a Vietnam vet with a marijuana habit. Ellen Barkin and David Nelson (of TV's Ozzie & Harriet fame) make very minor appearances. All the performances are fine for what they are, but nobody is going to win any acting awards in a film like this. Marin is particularly funny, though. In a lot of ways, Cheech & Chongs Up in Smoke is a late 1970s rendition of the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby "Road" movies of the 1940s and 1950s.

Drug humor must not be politically correct these days, as it has been a long time since I've seen much drug humor in the movies or on TV. In my college days, TV's Saturday Night Live had drug humor almost on a weekly basis. Nowadays when drugs are portrayed, they are almost always in a dramatic, if not tragic, light. I'm not sure why the entertainment media no longer acknowledges the counterculture. It's hard to imagine that watching inane behavior in a silly Cheech & Chong movie would entice anyone to turn to marijuana use if they already were not partaking of it.

Ultimately, Cheech & Chong's Up In Smoke is a movie of its time and is as lightweight and mainstream as generic slapstick comedies of any movie era. As a comedy team, Cheech & Chong exhibited surprising screen presence and were successful in tapping into the mood of moviegoers of a particular generation. And given a choice between a Cheech & Chong or an Adam Sandler vehicle, well, I'd probably prefer Cheech & Chong. Grade: B-

I watched Cheech & Chong's Up in Smoke via Netflix Streaming on January 14, 2013.

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