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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.

No. 33: “Mystery Men” (1999)

“We’ve got a blind date with destiny, and it looks like she’s ordered the lobster.”
~~The Shoveller

Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear, comic actor supreme) cuts a dashing figure in his aerodynamic, sponsor patch-studded leather suit, and he’d be an outstanding superhero if not for one hiccup: He’s good. He’s so good, in fact, that he’s vanquished all the supervillains and plumb run himself out of a job. Now this blonde superstar with the blinding smile is reduced to taking the gigs his grumbling publicist (Ricky Jay) gets him, like busting up a robbery at an old folks’ home. Poor Captain Amazing learned too late that pride should go before job security in a fall.

Maybe there are people capable of resisting a superhero movie anchored by a flaming imbecile more concerned with keeping his image — Pepsi pulled its sponsorship! — than saving people. Not I. There’s something to this “we’re not your classic heroes” angle that reels me in, even if the story’s told only passably well. Kinka Usher’s “Mystery Men” vaults past “passable” in the first 15 minutes when the deliciously ee-viyill Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush) emerges from his asylum stay ready to perpetrate some villainy. Rush is a marvel of a character actor, but as a supervillain? He’s even better. And because Casanova Frankenstein has twice the wit and triple the brains of his arch-nemesis (who doesn’t even know the plural of “nemesis”), it’s obvious that “Mystery Men” isn’t going to be an epic battle unless Captain Amazing gets some help. And he can’t afford to be picky.

Out from the crevices of Champion City (Gotham/N.Y.C. on acid) emerges a team of do-gooders painfully aware they are not an “elite cadre” of anything except Captain Amazing haters. That’s understandable; the man’s a limelight thief. The leader is Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller, aptly cast), who seems to think being irked and mixing metaphors — he is “a Pantera’s box you do not want to open” — make him a holy terror. His friends, the fork-flinging Blue Raja (Hank Azaria) and the Shoveller (William H. Macy), are less delusional; they see no reason to hire a publicist. “What is there to publicize? The fact that we get our butts kicked a lot?” Shoveller asks. Bent on 86ing Casanova, Mr. Furious enlists Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), only invisible when no one’s looking, to bring others out of hiding: The Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), whose power comes from her murdered father’s skull encased in a bowling ball; The Spleen (Paul Reubens), cursed with the ability to produce killer farts; and The Sphynx (Wes Studi), theoretically able to halve guns with his mind but who mostly says things like “to learn my teachings, I must first teach you how to learn.” Together they must take on not only Casanova but his Disco Boys, led by Tony P. (Eddie Izzard, a scream), who summons up murderous rage on behalf of disco’s unpopularity. When that doesn’t fly, he uses flaming hairspray.

For a movie like “Mystery Men” to work, atmosphere, action and characters must have a happy marriage. The relationship couldn’t be more harmonious. The look of Champion City and the heroes screams “comic book movie,” with vivid landscapes, colors and costumes meant to elicit laughter more than anything else (The Sphinx’s headdress is … beyond words). The action sequences are played for chuckles, including the team’s vandalism of Casanova’s limo and a hysterical scene where the team’s “daring rescue” of Captain Amazing goes sour. Kudos to the casting director for assembling so many funny actors in one group. They hit every genre of humor: observational (Macy); sophomoric (Reubens, Mitchell); punny (Azaria); savage wit (Garofalo, Rush). Slapstick, corny jokes, putdowns — whatever tickles your funny bone, it’s here. Even Tom Waits is here, in a cameo as loner mad scientist Dr. Heller, inventor extraordinaire of non-lethal weaponry like — ha! — the Blamethrower.

Undoubtedly there are fans of Bob Burden’s “Flaming Carrot Comics” series, which “Mystery Men” loosely draws from, who will find the much-altered film an affront. I’ll speak as a fan of the series and this adaptation: Sometimes changes are an insult. When they preserve the madcap spirit of the source material? Consider them a compliment. Do it, or else Mr. Furious will go Pompeii on your butt.

Real-life movie moment

The movie: “Mystery Men” (1999); dir. by Kinka Usher; starring Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, Janeane Garofalo, Hank Azaria, Paul Reubens, Geoffrey Rush, Greg Kinnear.

The moment: While shoveling piles of snow out of the driveway, I unearthed the frozen-solid corpse of a baby mouse. As I flung it off the shovel, it fell a few feet in front of the cat … who beat feet like Pete Doherty from a Narc-Anon meeting.

The correlation: I like to think that Dr. Heller would be proud of this, my discovery of the Deployment-Ready Mousenator, a new non-lethal weapon even simpler and more effective than, say, a Blamethrower.