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Review: “Half Baked” (1998)

Pot has lead to the creation of some pretty fishy stories, but none so loopy as the explanation Brian (Jim Breuer) gives for the obvious murder of the familyRottweiler Killer. The plot of “Syriana” made more sense. It’s possible that hippie throwback Brian has smoked himself retarded, and once “Half Baked” gets past the backstory you’re liable to wonder if Chappelle has suffered the same fate. He may be not one but two tokes over the line, sweet Jesus.

Chappelle can fool people that way. He’s about 50 I.Q. points higher than he acts. He has a Cleavon Little, “Baby, you are so talented” air about him. Once you realize that, it doesn’t matter a whiff that “Half Baked” is a series of weed-clouded escapades loosely related to a crisis. Besides, Chappelle, better acquainted with his uncrazy side these days, never intended for anyone to take “Half Baked” seriously. It’s like a tie-dyed shirt: It looks trippy from far away; up close it’s just a bunch of dye squiggles on cotton. The story, for those who insist on hammering it out, goes a little something like this: Reefer connoisseur Thurgood Marshall (Dave Chappelle) is a master of the custodial arts (a janitor if you want to be a dick about it) who lives with his buds Scarface (Guillermo Díaz), Brian (Jim Breuer) and Kenny (Harland Williams). They spend their time taking hits off Billy Bong Thornton, and one fatal evening that gets Kenny into a trouble when, on a munchies run, he feeds junk food to a diabetic police horse. (Just enjoy the contact high; don’t look for reason.) Into the slammer a cop killer Kenny goes, and his forever-fried pals have to raise the bail money. Hmm. Deep thinkers they ain’t.

Or are they? Maybe weed makes people smarter, because Scarface, Brian and Thurgood cook up a profitable scheme: Thurgood will steal the marijuana at the lab he cleans and they’ll sell the stuff all-profit. The wacky clientele push “Half Baked” into hysterical territory, with Chappelle sketching invaluable characters like the Enhancement Smoker (Jon Stewart), who thinks weed makes everything better; the MacGyver (Stephen Baldwin), who can make a bong with nothing more than an ice pick, an avocado and his snorkle; the Scavenger (Snoop Dogg), happy to hit someone’s joint but never has his own smoke; and the Historian Smoker (Willie Nelson), who remembers a time when dime bags cost a dime. As funny as these folks are, they’re also — dare I say it? — Jungian-esque archetypes. But because there must be Conflict (did Chappelle and cowriter Neal Brennan read “Filmmaking for Dummies”?), the newbie dealers hit snares. There’s Thurgood’s love interest Mary Jane (Rachel True), a saucy minx who’s anti-drug, and the local kingpin Samson Simpson (Clarence Williams III), none too happy that these guys are poaching his customers. This is war, and the dopey threesome has a crackerjack strategy: Dress Thurgood as a Jamaican. Boy-eeeee. 

Immature humor can be a joy forever when done right, and Chappelle’s “Half Baked” puts the “pube” in “pubescent.” Taken as a sketch comedy stretched past the hour mark, the movie is a success based on the characters, lines and scenes Brennan and Chappelle have written. There’s something to those toker types in “Half Baked,” the kind of insight broad stereotypes occasionally have. Dave Chappelle is a man who’s known a few smokers in his day, and he matter-of-factly gives the lay of the land to any non-tokers. All that “marijuana is a gateway drug” B.S. propaganda is absent here; in fact, in one of the movies funniest scenes, there’s colossal uproar when Thurgood introduces himself as a reefer addict at an NA meeting (heckler to Thurgood: “I used to suck dick for coke. Now that’s an addiction. You ever suck some dick for marijuana?”). Earlier, he sang a similar tune: “I don’t do drugs, though. Just weed.” “Half Baked” is no afterschool special; it’s just a funny movie about pot and the people who smoke it. Lord-have-mercy.

Grade: I want some Cheetos, man

*This seminal film is a contender in Anomalous Material’s current Greatest Comedy of All Time contest.