Gregg Araki's Big Hit

1.13.2008

By Dale Peck

We may never know if Gregg Araki chose to open Smiley Face with a shot of its protagonist stranded on a Ferris wheel because she's played by Anna Faris (Faris/Ferris -- get it?), or if the homophony is merely coincidental. Even if it were true, it's less important as an interpretive tool than emblematic of the degree to which Araki conceived and constructed his pot-picaresque entirely around the Scary Movie veteran's simultaneously lovely yet dopey face, which appears in almost every single shot of every single scene of this movie, the director's first since the breakout Mysterious Skin in 2004, and his sixth to be released since his original breakout, 1992's AIDS noir The Living End.

It's emblematic as well of the level of humor in the movie, a shaggy-dog story jump-started when Faris's Jane, a struggling actress with a serious marijuana habit, unknowingly eats an entire plate of pot cupcakes and subsequently trips her way through a series of mis- (sometimes missed) adventures that land her on the aforementioned Ferris wheel, talking to the disembodied voice of Roscoe Lee Browne (Google him, then let me know if that explains anything).

Araki's oeuvre comes steeped in unusual and sometimes contradictory juxtapositions. He's one of a handful of Asian-American filmmakers, yet there's nothing particularly Asian about his films. He's also one of the original practitioners of New Queer Cinema, yet after The Living End brought him equal parts fame and notoriety, he confounded expectations with Totally Fucked Up, The Doom Generation, Nowhere, and Splendor, a series of films that moved progressively further from the exclusively gay focus his proprietary constituency expected from him yet weren't the art-house flicks that peers Gus Van Sant and Todd Haynes produced to both Academy and audience approval.

On the one hand, such eclecticism is welcome in this day and age when so many filmmakers, gay or straight, find a groove and dig it out as though it were their own grave (Todd Solondz and Wes Anderson, take note). On the other, it seems to drive distributors up the wall, which might explain why Smiley Face, a complete break from Mysterious Skin's sensitive and well-received examination of the effect of sexual abuse on two very different boys, failed to receive a general theatrical release and can only be seen on DVD and in a couple of theaters in New York City and Southern California.

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