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This Is Your Brain on Drugs

Like, wow: Half Baked proves to be half-witted

Would that Half Baked were even as well done as its title implies. This attempt at a contemporary pothead comedy makes you long for the lightness and subtle urbanity of Up in Smoke. It has, maybe, this much of a claim on authenticity -- it really does play like something tossed off when the writer was wasted, and must have seemed an absolute scream at the time.

On second thought, that's probably not fair. Half Baked is far too commercially canny not to have been written straight. It could be a hit, and from the look of the film, it would only need to be a hit for a weekend or two to turn a nice profit.

The heroes are a quartet of stoner buddies who share an apartment in New York: Thurgood (Dave Chappelle), a janitor in a scientific research facility, Brian (Jim Breuer), a Deadhead/used-record-store clerk, Scarface (Guillermo Diaz), a fast-food chef, and Kenny (Harland Williams) a spacy kindergarten teacher. Kenny's the success story of the group, but alas, that only means he has the farthest to fall in a scandal.

Returning from a munchie run, Kenny sympathetically feeds some goodies to a horse tied up outside the store. The animal turns out to be an NYPD mount, and a diabetic. It keels over dead, and Kenny is thrown in jail as a cop killer. The rest of the plot concerns the efforts of the other three to raise their pal's bail money. The lab where Thurgood works houses a bottomless stash of premium weed, so, though they're loathe to become dealers, they decide to sell what Thurgood can scam -- just enough to spring Kenny. This eventually runs them afoul of a fey weed kingpin (Clarence Williams III) attended by a squadron of warrior babes.

Actually, that's a more inventive, better-developed plot than Up in Smoke had -- or, rather, than it lacked. The Cheech and Chong films were structural shambles, but they were agreeable because the stars were charming when zonked. Not so in Half Baked, in which Tommy Chong appears briefly and to no great effect.

Of the four stars, Chappelle (who also co-scripted the film with Neal Brennan) comes off best, because he made the remarkably canny decision to play the part as a straight leading man rather than a stoner caricature. Chappelle's withering send-up of a bad "Showtime at the Apollo"style comic was one of the better scenes in the Eddie Murphy version of The Nutty Professor, but his attempts at broad shtick here -- like climaxing spontaneously when he's handed a bounty of weed -- are his weakest moments. He's better as a nice young man.

Breuer, best known for his Joe Pesci takeoff on Saturday Night Live, does a stoned giggle that's pretty funny the first time or two you hear it -- until you realize that it's his whole characterization. He gets to do a brief spoof of Jerry Maguire that's not bad, but that's about it. Diaz gets almost nothing to do, and Williams, star of Disney's Rocketman, seems amorphous, a comic without a persona.

That said, the biggest surprise in Half Baked is that, after a trailer and a TV ad that offered not a laugh between them, it's not utterly horrible -- only almost utterly. There are a handful of laughs early on, and the film has a painless, professional pace. A few stars turn up in moderately amusing bits -- Jon Stewart, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Willie Nelson (who since his tax troubles has become one of the more affordable of major celebrities) and, unbilled, Steven Wright, Janeane Garofalo and America's Funniest Home Videos' Bob Saget. It's about the faintest praise a film can be offered, but if I had to choose between watching this movie, Bio-Dome or The Jerky Boys again, I'd choose Half Baked without hesitation.

As is too often the case with film comedies, the press kit for Half Baked contains a line funnier than anything in the film, albeit unintentionally. This wide-release from Universal Pictures calls itself a "hilariously subversive comedy." In my experience, potheads are a very decent class of people, but if they have an annoying trait, as a group, it's their romantic belief that smoking doobies makes them daring social rebels. In a time when the sitting president admits he's had a joint in his hand, does anyone still think pot is outrageous? Half Baked would be far more truly subversive if it extolled the joys of cigarettes.

Half Baked.
Directed by Tamra Davis. With Jim Breuer, Dave Chappelle, Guillermo Diaz and Harland Williams.

Rated R.
83 minutes.

 
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