We may never know if Gregg Araki chose to open Smiley Face with a shot of its protagonist stranded on a Ferris wheel because shes played by Anna Faris (Faris/Ferris -- get it?), or if the homophony is merely coincidental. Even if it were true, its 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 veterans simultaneously lovely yet dopey face, which appears in almost every single shot of every single scene of this movie, the directors first since the breakout Mysterious Skin in 2004, and his sixth to be released since his original breakout, 1992s AIDS noir The Living End.
Its emblematic as well of the level of humor in the movie, a shaggy-dog story jump-started when Fariss 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).
Arakis oeuvre comes steeped in unusual and sometimes contradictory juxtapositions. Hes one of a handful of Asian-American filmmakers, yet theres nothing particularly Asian about his films. Hes 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 werent 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 Skins 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.
To be fair to distributors, Arakis eclecticism does in fact make him a bit hit-or-miss. To be fair to Smiley Face, its as full of hits as it is of misses. In fact, it works better if you think of it not as a movie but as a well-edited gag reel: Faris eats her roommates pot cupcakes; she tries to make a replacement batch but burns the pot when she gets distracted by a phone call; she orders more from her dealer (played by a nearly unrecognizable Adam Brody, hiding beneath dreads and what looks like a hemp vest), only to discover that she owes him money; on the way to get cash, she remembers an audition for a commercial and veers off to declaim her single line before an unforgiving Jane Lynch, who, when Faris offers to sell her a bag of medicinal marijuana, starts screaming in a very Jane Lynchian way and calls the police. Faris panics; soon enough shes at a sausage factory with a copy of an original edition of The Communist Manifesto in her hand, inciting two very confused deliverymen (who mostly just want to get in her pants) to bring the revolution.
And so on.
This is obviously thin stuff, and I was surprised at how often I laughed at it. Credit is due equally to Araki, who never works a gag too hard, and to Faris, who appears to be game for anything. If MTV ever adds a category for Best Portrayal of a Stoner to its movie awards, Faris, with her slitted eyes, puffed cheeks, and spastically twitching head, is a sure contender for the Golden Popcorn. She reacts to stimuli, whether real or purely delusional, with the naive optimism of a 3-year-old; you cant help pulling for her, which is perhaps why the end of the movie is such a letdown. The best shaggy-dog stories -- Adventures in Babysitting, The Blues Brothers, David Finchers underrated thriller The Game -- find a way to weave all their disparate threads into an unexpected yet inevitable single narrative idea.
Unfortunately, Smiley Face ends as randomly as it began and leaves about as much of an impression as the high from a single toke on a passed-around party joint. One feels that Araki (or his screenwriter, Dylan Haggerty) rejected a neat ending as too artificial, but that would be no more artificial than the studied randomness of the plot itself. If youre going to work a gimmick, you might as well work it into the ground. Look what it did for Spike Jonze, after all.
But perhaps that wouldnt be true to Arakis aesthetic. Whatever else you can say about his work, Araki is among the last of the punks -- Richard Kelly without the Sturm und Drang, Spike Lee without the agenda -- and his I-dont-give-a-shit attitude is what allows him to make screwball comedies, nihilistic thrillers, and sensitive character studies with thrilling abandon. Also, hes a pessimist, alternately angry and amused that the worlds going to hell in a handbasket, although he doesnt seem to let it get him down. This isnt the same thing as saying he thinks comedy dulls the pain or some similar puerility; rather, he seems to regard culture as such an absurd proposition that it can only be laughed at. At any rate, since youre likely to see this movie on DVD, just fast-forward through the parts that drag. Like that joint at the party, theres always another funny bit coming around the bend.
Better yet, watch it stoned.