Up in Smoke (Lou Adler, 1978)
“You better get a… GODDAMN. JOB… before sundown… or we’re shipping you off to military school… with the… GODDAMN. FINKELSTEIN. SHIT. KID. Son of a… BITCH!!”
— exasperated rich dad (played in perfect smarmy, neck vein-bulging style by Strother Martin) screaming after his departing reprobate of a 40-year old(!) son (Tommy Chong)
With stoner comedy duo Cheech and Chong’s third film, Nice Dreams, coming up this month at the next The Deuce Film Series at the Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn, I figured it would be the perfect time to not only pull down one of those unwatched DVDs sitting forever on my shelf, but to revisit a film I hadn’t seen since it played in theaters (experiencing the wonderful excitement that came from sneaking into an R rated film at 12 years old to watch a naughty drug comedy that the uptight establishment were up in arms over).
I haven’t seen all of the C&C movies (I’ve seen the first four I believe — though my current viewing of the series will either confirm or disapprove that), but I’m pretty sure Up in Smoke is the best of the bunch; I remembered it as the most consistently funny of the ones I’d seen and the word of mouth on the unseen ones is… not so good (but we shall see).
Seeing it again, Up in Smoke remains still really funny following the very likeable comedy duo’s stoner hijinks… and, true to its 70’s sensibility, there is a genuine counterculture and anti-authoritarian streak that runs through the film that’s refreshing to see. As we know, the events of 9/11 handed the powers that be the keys and conformist ideology has won ever since. Bah humbug. Give me C&C driving stoned, foggily transporting a van of marijuana across the Mexican border and pissing on cop’s legs as they go any day.
Director Adler (who I only knew from being that old guy with the gray beard occasionally sitting next to Jack Nicholson in the front row at Lakers games) does a great job of using real LA barrio locations and creating an underlying social perspective amongst the hijinks. Adler was the comedians’ manager and also managed tons of LA rock bands so when the stoned duo end up playing in a local music show at the end of the film, there’s a really nice authentic feeling to the various LA punk bands they play against.
By today’s standards the film may be relatively innocent — even with the duo’s humor teetering over the line into sexism (with the leering Cheech coming across as practically a stalker at times) and you could clearly argue negative stereotypes — underneath lies an engaging, good time, openly disobedient heart; and along with all of those classic lines (“Gee, I hope your dick’s bigger than that, man”) and a hilariously uptight performance by Stacy Keach as their drug-sting operation nemesis Sgt. Stedenko (“Did you say Lard Ass?”) forever plagued by incompetent underlings, perhaps it’s partially familiarity as I owned — and played to death — the accompanying record album that was released with the film (that included that beautifully delivered rant from Chong’s dad above that I can still recite from memory) but I find something sublime in those absurdly-worded, catchy musical numbers C&C play in the film (“My momma took it to me try to tell me how to live!” — Da dana dana dant dant dah! — “But I don’t listen to her cuz my head is like a sieve!”).