Gregg Araki's Stoner Comedy

By David D'Arcy

Gregg Araki Smiley Face, Gregg Araki's hilarious LA stoner movie, was easy to miss at Sundance 2007. It was in the Midnight section, and its screenings were at the Egyptian Theater on Main Street, and not in the huge auditorium where premieres and dramatic competition films play. Bear in mind that a sign in front of the auditorium, attached to the local high school, proclaims this venue to be a "drug-free high school," so a movie about a young blonde whose life evolves around pot might not be considered appropriate.

Not being familiar with the Mormon doctrines that reign over Utah, I don't know whether pot enjoys a special dispensation from the Church of Latter Day Saints which would have spared Smiley Face the usual opprobrium. We'll see whether Alex Gibney's new documentary on legendary stoner Hunter Thompson will get a screening at the drug-free high school at Sundance this January.

You could call Smiley Face a tour de farce. Anna Faris is Jane, a bong-ready young actress sharing a lackluster apartment in an unglamorous unnamed part of Los Angeles. She's about to have the electricity turned off for non-payment, which drives her to the hash brownies in the refrigerator that were being saved for her dour roommate's sci-fi nerd buddies. She's also deep in the hole to her dope dealer (Adam Brody), who demands to be paid in full at the end of the day at a hemp festival in Venice, all the way across Los Angeles. The stoner movie becomes a road movie, a race to destiny, a picaresque adventure through non-descript LA. (Gregg Araki made his feature debut with The Living End, the first AIDS road movie, which Sundance will present as a revival of a "classic" at the 2008 festival. The Living End a classic? Few of us who remember the premiere of the no-budget odyssey back then would have imagined this kind of imprimatur. But there were a lot of things that we couldn't have imagined. )

There are plenty of pot jokes and absurd situations when Jane goes to an audition or stows away in a sausage truck. Yet more than a stoner odyssey, this is a one-woman marathon show, with Faris on camera most of the time, taking to her zonked character in the style of Lucille Ball or Peter Sellers or Rowan Atkinson. John Krasinski is the perfect straightman as a love-struck clone of Clark Kent whom she ropes in as a driver and then ditches. Adam Brody is the drug dealer with a heart who nobody thought existed. Faris won me over when I saw the film at Sundance and reviewed it for Screen later last spring. (It was funnier the second time.) Not many roles like Jane are written for women - who wants to remembered for eternity for sucking on a bong? - so it's hard to say how many actresses besides Faris could pull off this kind of performance. Sarah Silverman? Eva Mendes? Let's hope she doesn't become too famous for this kind of role, as I fear she might. It would be a shame if Anna - pronounced Ahh-na - goes the way of De-MEE and Rachel Veiss.

For Araki, Smiley Face is a light detour after the somber Mysterious Skin, and the witty script this time is by Dylan Haggerty, an actor who plays a ferris-wheel attendant where Jane ends up, stoned of course, at the end of her journey. I would hazard the guess that Haggerty writes about weed from experience here. The approach seems to be, "I'll show you magic realism - just hand me the bong."

There is a light directorial touch on this one. Often, you're thinking that Araki's approaching the movie as a performance film, with the camera following Jane through one mishap after another, much of it as believable as anything else in the everyday locations where it all happens. This is classic screwball comedy, the kind that every film school graduate used to try to reproduce (misguidedly) with a cookie cutter from the 1930s, and it's rarely done so well these days as Araki has done it. Wait until the second time around to see it stoned.

I spoke with Gregg Araki about Anna Faris, stoner movies, comedy and showing Smiley Face in a New York theater.

Are you a fan of stoner movies?

I've seen Dude Where's My Car? and the Kumar stuff, but I've never been such a huge fan that I wanted to rush out and make one. I had read the script for Smiley Face a few years back. There was something special about it. I found it original, unique and wonderfully weird. I just kind of fell in love with it. So I really had no desire to do a stoner movie. It was really the specialness of the script that was written by a new writer named Dylan Haggerty.

Smiley Face You said that you'd seen the script before. Had other people tried to make the film?

It was one of those scripts that had been kicking around Hollywood for a while. There had been other incarnations of it, with other actors and casts and other directors. They had been trying to make it for a few years. And it just so happened that, after Mysterious Skin, which was so dark and serious and heavy, I was really looking to do something that was completely different. I was working on this other movie, called Creeds, and the financing on it sort of fell apart at that last minute. So I remembered this script that I had read a few years back, and I remembered it being the funniest script that I ever read, and also the most unusual. And it had never been made, so I was wondering what happened to it. My manager and I looked into it, found the script again, and it just so happened that the rights were becoming available, so it all sort of came together pretty quickly.

You did not walk into a situation that was already cast?

No - definitely not. There had been various other versions of the script. It had been caught in this weird sort of development hell. To me, it had sort of been overdeveloped, in a bad way. It had lost what made it to me so fresh and exciting. We went back to what more or less was the original script, and we found Anna Faris, who was my first and only choice for the part. She's so uniquely talented. There are so many beautiful 20-something ingénues out there, but I think [she has a] comic gift. In terms of her abilities and the way she uses her face and her body, she's totally unique, like a Carole Lombard or a Lucille Ball.

She has such amazing gifts and her timing is so incredible that the producer, Alix Madigan and I used to talk after dailies and just say, "Thank God for Anna," because I don't think there's really anybody out there who could have really pulled off this performance in the way that she does. She kind of makes it looks deceptively easy. There were people at Sundance who said, "Oh, was she just stoned the whole time?" The performance is much more difficult and tricky than it looks. It's really a challenge to be able to pull of a movie like Smiley Face, where you're literally on-screen every frame of every scene.

Jane is not the most sympathetic character in a sense, since she continually makes the wrong choice and does the wrong thing. In the wrong hands, that could get infuriating, but with Anna, she's so incredibly likeable. She has this amazing ability to suck you in, and you're really rooting for her, even if she does one stupid thing after another.


Araki and Smiley Face

Fun interview, David (and Gregg)! Can't wait to see this movie--and it looks like we won't have to for long--as it comes out on DVD next week, I believe!

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