'Smiley Face' Invented the Female Stoner Comedy

The world wasn't ready for Gregg Araki and Anna Faris's weed-smoking masterpiece—but now it is.

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Nov 16 2017, 5:45pm

First Look International

The world wasn’t ready for Smiley Face. Director Gregg Araki’s hilarious movie about an out-of-work actress who accidentally eats an entire batch of her creepy roommate’s weed cupcakes opened on a single American screen on November 16, 2007. It ended its short run with a domestic gross of $9,397. Although many critics praised Anna Faris’s lead performance, they also pigeonholed the film as a “midnight movie” or “mumblecore through a marijuana haze.” Most people I mention it to have never heard of it, much less seen it.

That probably explains why Broad City, which began as a web series in 2009 and moved to Comedy Central about four years later, is so often credited with pioneering the female stoner comedy. Smiley Face made such a small impact when it premiered that it’s usually omitted from celebrations of the lady potheads who’ve recently invaded pop culture and timelines of the archetype. No disrespect to Abbi and Ilana—who’ve been making one of TV’s most purely pleasurable shows for four seasons now—but their young, white, overeducated, underemployed, adventure-prone hedonist characters have an obvious ancestor in Faris’s Jane F.

Shot over about three weeks in Los Angeles, Smiley Face recounts a spectacularly disastrous day in Jane’s neurotic, aimless and frequently intoxicated life. After her roommate Steve (Danny Masterson), who may or may not fuck human skulls in his spare time, leaves for work, she can’t resist eating one of the homemade cupcakes he is saving for a gathering of his nerdy friends. Then she devours all of them. Just as she’s hatching a plan to bake new cupcakes without missing a big audition, Jane realizes she’s dangerously stoned, and will be for hours.

Of course, her every drug-addled attempt to make things right only exacerbates the situation. Jane’s dealer (Adam Brody, a good sport in garish white-guy dreads) says he’ll take her furniture if she doesn’t pay off her debt to him—today. While baking, she burns the replacement pot. When she finally makes it to her audition, she not only bombs, but tries to sell the uptight casting director (Jane Lynch) her prized possession, a bag of the once-coveted “government weed” that Californians can now easily buy with a prescription. By the afternoon, despite making a courageous journey across LA with the help of a dozen acquaintances and strangers (John Cho, John Krasinski, Danny Trejo, Jim Rash, and Brian Posehn all appear in small roles), she’s on the run from the cops. It goes without saying that she’s no closer to making those cupcakes.

If there’s ever been a better physical comedy performance than Faris’s in Smiley Face, I haven’t seen it. She breaks into fits of laughter with no warning or explanation. When she’s not drawling her way through some confrontation or other, she’s using increasingly shoddy stoner logic to plan her next move. We watch expressions of confusion, fear and wonder cross her slack-jawed, glassy-eyed face as a stream-of-consciousness voiceover reveals what she’s thinking. (In the best one, Jane rubs her belly and giggles through a reverie that takes her from lasagna to Garfield the cat to President Garfield.) At one point, the sounds of drills and crying babies in a dentist’s office have her tripping through the waiting room like a soldier under fire.

Because she’s beautiful and blond, Faris has played cheerleaders, Playboy bunnies and dream girls of all varieties. But Jane, in her T-shirt and baggy hoodie, is no sex symbol. Like Abbi and especially Ilana, she’s a sensualist, more interested in satisfying her own desires than stoking others’. Instead of making her an object for a room full of dudes to drool over between bong hits, Araki and screenwriter Dylan Haggerty build the movie around her thoughts. The decision to relegate men to minor roles makes sense for Araki, a New Queer Cinema veteran who’d spent 20 years subverting tired tropes about young people before making Smiley Face.

For all her zany antics, Jane turns out to be surprisingly complex. We watch her do incredibly stupid things, but it’s clear she’s actually pretty smart. Her college years as an economics major are a running joke; she corrects her dealer’s misunderstanding of Reaganomics and stumbles upon a first edition of The Communist Manifesto. Her monologues are as eloquent as they are unhinged. And as she tells it, at least, her past is littered with ruined friendships, breakups and nervous breakdowns.

Jane certainly wasn’t the first visible female stoner in pop culture. Centuries before the birth of Christ, Sumerians associated cannabis with the goddess Ishtar. You can thank Gertrude Stein’s partner Alice B. Toklas and her hashish fudge recipe for opening up a whole new world of edibles. Janis Joplin, the prototypical debauched hippie chick, sang an ode to “Mary Jane.” Women of Faris’s generation grew up listening to Missy Elliott’s “Pass That Dutch” and singing along to Lil’ Kim’s boast that “my girls rock Chanel and smoke mad marijuana.” By 2012, there had been enough “hot stoner girls” on film and TV to inspire a Complex ranking. (Here, I’ll save you a click: Faris is #12. Milla Jovovich in Dazed and Confused is #1. She must be so proud.)

But most of those characters are love interests or bit-part punchlines. Smiley Face was the first female-driven entry in a filmography that includes Cheech and Chong, Dazed and Confused, Half Baked, The Big Lebowski, Friday, and the Harold and Kumar trilogy, to name just a few beloved male stoner movies. Haggerty’s script, Araki’s direction and Faris’s performance established those characters’ women counterparts as intelligent, laid-back, fun-loving, and simultaneously adventurous and lazy, with a hint of underlying sadness. A few years later, this persona started popping up in music. Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus were suddenly potheads. Courtney Barnett found an audience outside Melbourne with songs about smoking and lying around in bed. Although Rihanna is the queen of carefree girl tokers, most of these women were white—which should give anyone celebrating this new female stoner renaissance pause.

What Broad City added to the archetype was an overtly sex-positive, feminist sensibility and the ingredient that’s conspicuously absent from Jane’s life: friendship. The result isn’t necessarily funnier than Smiley Face, which holds up incredibly well ten years later, but it is more optimistic. As imperfect as they are, Abbi and Ilana never have to face the consequences of their many fuckups alone. Like Harold and Kumar, Cheech and Chong and those two bros from Dude, Where’s My Car?, they don’t just have weed—they have each other.

Follow Judy Berman on Twitter.

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