a beginners guide to 90s stoner movies
Everything you wanted to know about dopey dudes doing dumb shit, and the movies they starred in.
Stoner movies were nothing new in the 90s. They'd been around for decades. Rewind to the 60s and glazed-eyed teens were stumbling out of midnight screenings of Kubrick's 2001, drawn to the psychedelic spectacle like moths to a flame. They gawped at counterculture films like 1967's The Trip, and later sci-fi head-scratchers like 1980's Altered States. These movies weren't always about stoners but they were for stoners, stoners who love to stroke their beards and ponder how insignificant the human race is.
But in the 90s - arguably the golden era of the stoner movie - potheads were put front and center, their pretensions parodied on screen for lols. It was the decade of the slacker, and so, sure enough. 90s stoner movies are marked by dopey dudes doing dumb shit. The story doesn't matter so much as the goofy trip, unfolding like the incoherent thoughts of a baked layabout. One such film was released 20 years ago this month. It's called Bongwater and it stars Luke Wilson and Brittany Murphy, and it's a zany trip that exemplifies what I'm on about. So that's where I'll start.
Bongwater is a slacker movie, a stoner movie and a rom-com all rolled into one. There's dopey dialogue about Satan, angels and devils. There's a guy playing terrible sitar next to a table littered with bongs, empty beer bottles and overflowing ashtrays. And there's… an actual flying saucer. Luke Wilson plays a lovelorn pot dealer and aspiring artist whose life is upturned when he meets and falls for Serena (Alicia Witt). His life is dull like most dealers ("I don't usually go out, people usually come here!") until Serena comes along. Then, when she leaves for New York, he ends up hunting magic mushrooms with Brittany Murphy and singing songs around a campfire with Jack Black's merry band of stoners. It's all a bit strange. Then you remind yourself it's a stoner movie and 'strange' is the name of the game. The best thing about it - aside from the flying saucer - is spotting all the familiar 90s faces, like Elton from Clueless, and the movie store clerk from Scream.
The dudes in Half Baked don't do much to dispel the clichés about stoners. They're unmotivated, lack brain cells, and talk like 12-year-old boys on the back of the school bus. (There's a whole lot of truth in those clichés, let's face it.) The story: a group of friends sell weed in order to raise bail money for their mate who was arrested for accidentally killing a diabetic horse. They smoke weed. They talk about smoking weed. When they take a hit from their "Billy Bong Thornton", they see giant candy bars and sodas, their conversation limited to how best to keep their munchies at bay. Dave Chappelle lights up the madcap NYC adventure but is soon upstaged by two legendary stoners, Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg, in just seconds of screen time. No surprises there.
The Big Lebowski
"Mind if I do a J?" It's not surprising The Dude became the ultimate stoner's icon. The bowling-obsessed slacker, in his slippers and dressing gown, is so laidback he doesn't know whether it's a weekday or the weekend. All he cares about is his bowling tournament. And maybe his White Russians. As the loveable deadbeat, he anchors the Coen brothers' freewheeling story that kicks in the moment someone pisses on his rug. The characters - a loose canon Vietnam vet, a feminist painter, a porn magnate, a Kraftwerk rip-off band - are like something out of a Fellini movie. Throw in a couple of trippy dream sequences with Saddam Hussein at a bowling alley, flying rugs and Busby Berkeley-style dance routines, and it's not hard to see how this became the pothead's favourite.
The Stoned Age
The movie poster for The Stoned Age boasts the absurd quote, "Better than Dazed and Confused". Whoever wrote that was evidently on something stronger than weed at the time. It's not better than Linklater's film - but I get the comparison. Both films are set in the 70s, both follow longhaired burnouts cruising the streets at night listening to Black Sabbath, desperate to score with "chicks" and get high. That's basically all there is to The Stoned Age, whose protagonists drive around LA's suburbs in a shitty car with a giant eyeball painted on the side, arguing about whether or not Blue Öyster Cult is "pussy" music. It's the teenage stoner's definition of the American Dream; meaning there's plenty to roll your eyes at. Not least the bizarre 2001 parody in which a ginger-haired teen sucks from a baby's bottle. It's hilarious, yeah, but it's no Dazed and Confused.
You'll find the usual slacker tropes in Idle Hands, whose pot-puffing protagonist wears pink slippers and scratches his balls like The Dude. His dream life, he says, is "to lie around and watch TV while some hot broad delivers me food." But there's a twist. It's also a blood-drenched teen horror that plays like a fucked up nightmare, or more accurately, the darkest trip you've ever had. It follows suburban stoner Anton (Devon Sawa from Eminem's Stan video) whose right hand inexplicably becomes possessed with murderous intent. Perhaps it was the weed? The hand manages to kill his two best mates, then tries to kill Anton's crush (Jessica Alba's girl next door). Then, near the end of the film, at a high school Halloween gig, the hand scalps the lead singer of The Offspring mid-song. Yeah, it's probably one you don't wanna watch while you're high.
The promo poster for college comedy PCU says it all: a graduate, in full graduation garb, wears a pizza box hat containing a crushed beer can, a cigarette butt and a single slice of pizza. This is what college is all about. In the film, a preppy pre-freshman visits the Port Chester University to sample small-town college life. What he finds are stoners, skaters and strange factions like the Womynists (a radical feminist group who complain about the new Madonna video and call out the "penis party" on campus) and The Pit (a ramshackle frat house full of burnouts). The prepster navigates the chaos and learns the truth about higher education: that it's one giant, three-year long party. Which of course you already knew. The best thing about the film? A young, dreadlocked Jon Favreau, who commits the ultimate faux pas by going to a gig wearing the shirt of the band playing. His mate tells him what we're all thinking. "Don't be that guy."
Text Oliver Lunn