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April 25, 2008

Gregg Araki lights up


Director steps away from the dark side for a fun stoner comedy

If there is one constant in queer director Gregg Araki’s films, it is the unpredictability of his output.

His first “big” film, The Living End, was described as an HIV-positive gay male take on Thelma and Louise, a dizzying cross-country trip marred by violence, despair and dark humor.

He followed it up with his “Teen Apocalypse Trilogy” of Totally Fucked Up, Doom Generation and Nowhere, all three of which starred James Duval, the result of scientific experiments to clone a young Keanu Reeves but install acting ability and emotional range.

Those three films alone were all over the board, from a slice-of-life look at being a gay post-adolescent in Los Angeles to a road trip, literally and figuratively to hell, to a tripped-out weekend replete with alien invasions and first love.

Splendor was a bit of a divergence for Araki, who made a film about a heterosexual ménage à trois that meandered humorously about throughout the story.

Audiences were then screwed out of seeing his next work, a pilot for MTV called This is How the World Ends, which was never broadcast.

However, his adaptation of Scott Heim’s novel Mysterious Skin was hailed as his most mature work, a serious take on a serious subject: child molestation and its effects on the development of two very different young men.

Araki’s latest offering, Smiley Face, is not his magnum opus. It’s not a deep, serious piece on troubles in society. It doesn’t even have James Duval appearing naked onscreen.

It is, though, a sublime bit of comedy cinema, now available on DVD.

Anna Faris, star of the Scary Movie series of slapstick horror spoofs, stars as Jane F., a would-be albeit not aspiring actress, who is simply trying to get through her day.

The fact that she got stoned at 9 am is not helping.

It gets worse. That platter of cupcakes her roommate made for the sci-fi convention? The one with the giant note on it telling Jane not to eat them? She ate them. All of them.

And they were laced with pot. Lots of pot.

Jane is, as they say, tripping balls. Almost completely unable to function, she realizes that she has to replace the aforementioned cupcakes before her roommate (played by That ’70s Show’s Danny Masterson) find out. He creeps her out.

In fact, her weed dealer thinks the roommate might be a skull-fucker. One isn’t really sure why someone would do that to a skull, but it does provide an opportunity for Masterson to doff his clothing, so nobody is complaining.

Jane also has an audition at 11:30. The casting director, played by out actress Jane Lynch, does not seemed particularly impressed by the young woman’s dazed performance, and things take a decidedly downward turn when Jane offers to sell Jane some of her government weed so she can get the money to pay back her dealer for the pot she had to wash down the sink after burning it in the pan when she was trying to make more cupcakes.

Whew! This brings us about twenty minutes into the film.

Jane goes through her phone book, trying to find someone who can lend her money and drive her to Venice Beach so her dealer won’t steal her bed. Unfortunately, the only person who is willing to help her is Brevin Ericson, her roommate’s friend. Played by The Office’s John Krasinski, Brevin has a major crush on Jane, and she takes ruthless, if completely marijuana-addled, advantage of it.

When Brevin’s car gets broken into, Jane freaks out, certain that the police officer writing up the report is going to bust her for being stoned. She runs off, stowing away in a sausage truck driven by Danny Trejo (who has been in most of Robert Rodriguez’ films) and John Cho, star of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.

The presence of Cho is especially amusing, since Whitney Pastorek in Entertainment Weekly compared Smiley Face to that film, “except with just one chick trying to get to the beach.”

Somewhere in there, Jane comes into possession of an original manuscript of the Communist Manifesto, meets Jesus, gets stuck on a Ferris wheel, and talks to Roscoe Lee Browne, whose only appearance in the film is as a voice in Jane’s head, serving as a narrator. Browne, who died in 2007, may have been gay--almost nothing online refers to his personal life, although the celebrated black actor was referred to as a “never-married octogenarian.”

The movie is filled with Araki’s trademark visual strangeness, whether an animated smiley face that Jane draws in the sky, the cartoon pig on the side of a truck winking, or the support pillars of a parking garage moving to and fro while Jane is trying to back her Volvo out of a space. It’s one of the few things that remains consistent through most of Araki’s films: hallucinatory images. One wonders if he just did waaaaay too much acid.

It would be tempting to say that, ultimately, Smiley Face was less satisfying than Mysterious Skin, a step back for the director.

That would be fallacious. Comparing a drama like Mysterious Skin and a comedy like Smiley Face is inevitable, since they are by the same director, but it’s similar to comparing an apple and a tomato because they were grown in the same county.

Araki skillfully crafts a deft comedy, a bit broad, completely silly, but also immensely enjoyable and totally engaging. Woe betide he or she who watches this film stoned, since First Look Studios gives no warranty against wetting one’s pants.

In fact, the only really negative thing one could say about the DVD is the paucity of extra features. The “making of” featurette is cute, but there could be so much more. If nothing else, it would have been interesting to include an accounting of exactly how long Anna Faris is onscreen with her mouth hanging slackly open.





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