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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. 3: “The Usual Suspects” (1995)

“A man can convince anyone he’s somebody else, but never himself.”
~~Verbal Kint

Most films are more about what leads up to the finale than the finale itself — the how, not the what. Nobody ever told Bryan Singer that, and so he directed “The Usual Suspects,” a labyrinthine teeth-kicker of a crime thriller where the end is what matters. Everything else is window dressing … but it so happens that Singer is one very fine interior decorator.

There’s no sense letting slip even one more peep about that ending, except to say that it does NOT inspire lukewarm reactions. (Think shock, uncontrollable rage, humiliation, disgust, abject hopelessness and self-pity — a veritable font of negative human emotions.) Best to defer to the Fight Club rulebook when it comes to those last five minutes of “The Usual Suspects”; in fact, don’t let anyone talk about any part of the movie in your presence, since there’s no such thing as an “insignificant detail” in this one. The less you know, the better. Understood?

With Act 3 off the docket, what’s left to discuss? Well, plenty, thanks to Singer’s remarkable eye for details and Christopher McQuarrie’s twisty, smarter-than-smart script. Herein lies the paradox: Although the end is paramount, the lead-up is where all the fun is. If you can call murder, mayhem and utter befuddlement “fun.” (Note: I do.) Have a chew of the setup, explained brilliantly by the movie’s tagline: “Five criminals. One lineup. No coincidence.” When a truck is hijacked, New York police haul in five familiar faces: McManus (Stephen Baldwin), the loose cannon con; Fenster (Benicio del Toro), McManus’ partner; Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), a crooked ex-cop whose cool facade hides his ruthless nature; Hockney (Kevin Pollak), who has two interests: money and himself; and Verbal (Kevin Spacey), a short con operator with cerebal palsy. The five decide to exact some sweet revenge on the cops, but the plan leads to an entanglement with Keyser Soze, a mythic, faceless figure with limitless power and unfathomable influence. Pulled in to investigate the revenge plot’s spiraling aftermath is U.S. Customs agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri), a smug man quite certain he’s in control of everything who’s none too happy to discover he knows absolutely nothing. He’s just a poor, clueless schmuck like the rest of us.

If this all sounds very high concept, that’s because, uh, it is, and arrogantly so. McQuarrie’s shooting for the ionosphere with this script, which contains so many turns that it takes multiple viewings to sort them out (and maybe not even then). The concept of linear action? Ha! Constant vigilence and attention to detail are requirements, not suggestions, just to follow along. But that’s hardly a flaw, since directors rarely assume this level of intelligence of their audiences.

Yet don’t go thinking Singer’s going to reward all this effort. If anything, his interest lies in teasing us, playing Chesire Cat to our Alice. He gives us no pieces, then the wrong ones (which sometimes turn out to be right), then the right ones (at the wrong time), then all of them tossed together like some crazy jumbled puzzle salad. It might be maddening if “The Usual Suspects” weren’t so darn cool-looking. The cinematography, with its looming darkness and shaded-just-so corners that conceal key details, adds to the tension beautifully. 

That whole “cool-looking” idea extends to the actors, who are cherry-picked. There was a time before Stephen Baldwin started boardin’ for the Lord and filed for bankruptcy. That time was 1995, and since then he has not come close to topping McManus. Benicio del Toro plays Fenster as something of a comedian, sporting an inexplicable accent that ends up being the film’s funniest running gag. Byrne, who’s never had to try very hard to be the coolest cat in the room, works the seething pit of inner rage angle perfectly, while Palminteri acts as a mirror for the viewers. And all take a backseat to Spacey, who turns in a mindhole-blowing performance as Verbal Kint. He reminds us that we must never, ever understimate him.

Make that mistake with “The Usual Suspects” and see how far it gets you.