Gregg Araki's Big Hit

1.13.2008

By Dale Peck

To be fair to distributors, Araki's eclecticism does in fact make him a bit hit-or-miss. To be fair to Smiley Face, it's 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 roommate's 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 she's 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 can't 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 Fincher's 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 you're 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 wouldn't be true to Araki's 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-don't-give-a-shit attitude is what allows him to make screwball comedies, nihilistic thrillers, and sensitive character studies with thrilling abandon. Also, he's a pessimist, alternately angry and amused that the world's going to hell in a handbasket, although he doesn't seem to let it get him down. This isn't 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 you're likely to see this movie on DVD, just fast-forward through the parts that drag. Like that joint at the party, there's always another funny bit coming around the bend.

Better yet, watch it stoned.

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