Sub-Cult 2.0 #1 Smiley Face (2007)
Gregg Araki’s 2004 masterpiece Mysterious Skin, an adaptation of Scott Heim’s novel of the same name, represented a massive evolutionary leap forward for the writer-director. The filmmaker was previously was best known for punky, bratty provocations like The Doom Generation, the middle entry in his “teen apocalypse” trilogy but Mysterious Skin showcased a new side of Araki that was quieter, more restrained and more adult even as his breakthrough film captures the heightened emotions and pummeling intensity of adolescent life with an emotional authenticity few films can match.
Mysterious Skin established Araki as a filmmaker of power and substance. It wasn’t just far far better and deeper than anything he’d ever done. It was a movie that was serious and even important for reasons that went above and beyond giving star Joseph Gordon-Levitt the role of a lifetime, and a showcase for a performance that played a huge role in the actor’s unlikely evolution from shaggy-haired TV sitcom kid star to brooding dramatic actor and independent auteur.
Mysterious Skin revealed new depths to the 1990s indie film bad boy but for his much-anticipated follow up he did not go the expected route and try to leverage his newfound status and critical acclaim to make a film like his breakthrough, only bigger, messier, more expensive and less satisfactorily realized.
Instead Araki followed in the footsteps of the Coen Brothers when they defied expectations and followed up their serious, Oscar-winning triumph Fargo with a proudly, defiantly inconsequential stoned lark about a White Russian-loving, bathrobe-clad hippie doofus called The Big Lebowski.
Only instead of following up his great leap forward to with a goofball riff on Raymond Chandler, Araki returned three years later with the delightful 2007 romp Smiley Face, a sublimely silly stoner comedy featuring a lead performance by a never-better Anna Faris every bit as impressive and revelatory as Gordon-Levitt’s career-transforming turn in Mysterious Skin.
They do not give Academy Awards to movies like Happy Face. It’s not even the kind of thing that wins Independent Spirit Awards, but if they did Anna Faris would have Best Actress locked up for her performance as Jane, a sloppy stoner who subscribes to the eminently reasonable conviction that a life not lived in dirty pajamas and within arm’s reach of a bong is not a life worth living.
Jane stumbles through life in a stoned, confused haze. She’s an actress, after a fashion, but judging from all available evidence, including the acting she does as part of “real life”, she is very bad at what she does. When Jane shows up stoned out of her gourd for an audition for an uptight, wound-up casting agent played by Jane Lynch (one of a bevy of big names and familiar faces in supporting roles), and tries to sell the horrified woman pot after bombing the “audition”, the older woman seems as insulted by our hapless heroine’s acting as she is by her attempts to sell her drugs. Jane’s acting seems to have two equally abrasive modes: robotic and “jumping up and down while yelling”-level over the top.
Jane also has a background in economics, or at least a degree from what must be a terribly undiscriminating school, but that seems only to fuel her delusional conviction in herself and her abilities, and sets her on a path to being the world’s worst businesswoman, a process greatly enhanced by the enormous amount of THC she accidentally consumes when she binges on her stuck-up roommate’s cupcakes, not knowing they’re infused with marijuana.
Jane is as lazily industrious as she is incompetent, so she hatches a plan that begins with “buy more pot.” There is a method to her madness, sort of, but plans that begin with that as number one invariably lead in the direction of “get progressively more stoned and make increasingly bad choices.”
Jane doesn’t seem inclined towards making good decisions even in the best, most sober of circumstances in her exceedingly baked state she’s a roaring hurricane of poor choices and woefully misplaced confidence.
Attempting to put her feeble grasp of acting to good use, Jane tries to put a good, confident face on the never-ending string of mistakes and errors in judgement that constitute one very bad, very stoned day. But Jane isn’t not fooling anyone, including herself. In keeping with the movie’s meta, goofball, live-action-cartoon campiness, our hapless heroine’s thoughts sometimes adopt the sonorous sound of character actor and voiceover artist Roscoe Lee Browne, whose majestic voice lends an incongruous grandeur to words like “Dorito’s” and the peppering of self-loathing profanity that peppers Jane’s thoughts about herself.
Even Jane’s subconscious gives her crap for being stoned not just at any given time, and as a way of life, but for being stoned as the entirety of her half-assed existence, with no plans or desire to change. Everywhere she goes people look at her with disgust and judgment but she just keeps listening to that stoned inner voice telling her she’s doing super but maybe should look into possibly improving her already chill situation via food and/or additional THC consumption.
Jane sets about fixing her self-created problems but every step she takes to get out of trouble backfires and creates new problems and complications. A movie like Smiley Face would look and feel a lot different if it were made today, when pot is basically legal in California, the stoner paradise where the movie takes place, but only some of Jane’s problems here are rooted in pot’s illegality.
Sure, some of Jane’s problems are caused by having to buy pot from a white Trustafarian dealer obsessed with what he deems the “Reaganomics” of pot dealing played by Adam Brody rather than get it from a legit, or “legit” dispensary. But most of Jane’s problems are caused by her inability to handle whatever crisis she’s confronted with, both because she’s bad at life in general, and also invariably way more stoned than it would behoove her to be.
Smiley Face is savvy and honest enough to acknowledge that even the sloppiest and grossest version of Anna Faris, one that lounges like a lump on the couch, a light coating of Dorito’s dust coating her pajamas pants and thrift store tee-shirt, is someone’s idea of a goddess and a dream woman. Actually, it’s safe to say that that a Cheeto’s-coated, barely conscious Anna Faris would still be a lot of people’s idea of a dream woman.
In Smiley Face, Faris is lusted after by Brevin (John Krasinski), a milquetoast Poindexter whose fashion sense is “teenaged Jeffrey Damhmer gone normcore.” To put things in Fast Times at Ridgemont High terms, he’s Judge Reinhold to her Phoebe Cates, to the point where a deliberate homage to the earlier film’s big, iconic fantasy masturbation scene seems richly merited, although part of the peculiar genius of Smiley Face is that Anna Faris’ character is at once a hapless loser and an object of lust and desire. She’s essentially Judge Reinhold and Phoebe Cates in the same package, with a whole lot of Sean Penn’s uber-stoner icon thrown in for good measures. Verily, she contains multitudes. Sloppy, sloppy, stoned multitudes.
Jane is able to leverage Brevin’s lust and unrequited longing for her into snagging a key ride but there’s nothing about her so appealing or charming that it cannot immediately and dramatically be undone her preternatural gift for saying and doing the wrong thing, often in the presence of glowering authority figures and unimpressed representatives of the straight world.
Smiley Face is at once deeply empathetic towards Jane and oddly pitiless towards its heroine’s increasingly unfortunate and unpalatable predicament. We might be charmed by her slacker charm and stony good vibes but the film’s characters overwhelmingly are not, nor are they remotely fooled by her attempts to extricate herself from her bind by making increasingly terrible decisions involving a first edition copy of The Communist Manifesto, which here functions ironically as an icon of capitalistic supply and demand of almost unimaginable value, a hemp fest in Venice and an ever-increasing posse of “Normies”—including a nice old woman played by Marion Ross of Happy Days and a buttoned-up type played by Christopher Guest fixture Michael Hitchcock—out to bring our anti-heroine to justice for her various crimes and endless low-level bungling.
Smiley Face would not work without a performance of total conviction and heroic, brazen unselfconsciousness from its lead actress. Seldom has a beautiful woman been willing to make herself look so unappealing for the sake of art, and that includes Charlize Theron in Monster, which is nowhere near as much fun as Smiley Face but won Theron the Oscar that should have belonged to Faris for Smiley Face .
Hunched over, lazily duded out in mom jeans, tee shirts and an endless series of unwashed pajama pants and often visibly suppressing drool, Faris delivers a performance devoid of vanity, devoid of narcissism, devoid of the layers upon layers of self-protection that keep actresses and actors from throwing themselves into playing hot messes with such wild, bold, brazen abandon.
Smiley Face is an incongruously sunny and enjoyable film about what is essentially a waking nightmare for stoners: stumbling obliviously and incompetently through a seemingly unresolvable mess of your own making. For Jane in Smiley Face, life is one big pop quiz she does not know that answers for, as well as a never-ending gauntlet of stern, judgmental and scowling faces who know exactly what’s going on with your brain chemistry and are judging you harshly for it.
In that respect the movie at times suggests a California sunshine daylight version of After Hours with the New York bad vibes of Scorsese’s classic dark comedy replaced with something less urban and apocalyptic but with a similarly masterful, hilarious sense of life’s underlying bleak absurdity.
Smiley Face is undeniably and enjoyably a product of its time, a very late oughts look at the child-like sense of helplessness that comes with being helplessly baked out of your gourd. It’s no magnum opus like Fargo or Mysterious Skin. Instead, like The Big Lebowski, it’s a magnificent stoned lark that has developed quite a legacy of its own despite being deliberately, even transcendently inconsequential, a fizzy digestif after the heavy meal that was The Mysterious Skin.
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