Dispatches From Direct-To-DVD Purgatory is a periodic check-in on what’s going on in the world of movies that didn’t make it to theaters.
Mac & Devin Go To High School (2012)
To write passionately and wholeheartedly about the trashiest recesses of popular culture, you paradoxically have to love what you hate and hate what you love. You have to be powerfully invested in the kind of ephemera others wouldn’t give a moment’s notice, like self-published tell-alls from hip-hop hangers-on, ill-fated experiments in children’s entertainment/socialization, Tarantino knockoffs, and rapsploitation cheapies.
When I started writing about movies in the late ’90s, rapsploitation cheapies rivaled Tarantino knockoffs for supremacy on video-store shelves. These opportunistic low-budget genre movies were born of the same hustling, entrepreneurial spirit that launched a hundred legendary hip-hop labels, but the results were infinitely less inspired. Oftentimes, these movies were part of the same hustle that birthed record labels, compilations, and a thousand other low-budget dreams.
I used to read a magazine called Murder Dog whose pages were full of big talk from starving young artists about how their professional debut was going to coincide with the dropping of their mixtape, which will have advertisements for the clothing line to follow that would be featured prominently in the film they’d be starring in, which would also be the first release from the production company they’re starting and will coincide with the release of that film’s soundtrack, which will serve as a showcase for all the other young, hungry artists on the big-talking rapper’s new label. Before these artists had scored even a modest regional hit, they already had their multimedia plan for global domination perfected. In that respect, these movies were merely a means to an end, an extension of a brand rather than genuine creative expression. They were a hustle, plain and simple, cynically executed for the purpose of a cheap buck. But there was also a strange glory to the shamelessness of these dodgy bottom-feeders.
The life-affirming spirit of the proud carny, prince among men, runs throughout the rapsploitation genre. At their most incompetent, these films fall so far from accepted standards of quality in terms of acting, writing, and craftsmanship that they almost qualify as outsider art. They are the work of headstrong men (and I do mean men, as rapsploitation is a Super He-Man Woman Hater Club of a genre) unwilling to let a complete inability to act, write, direct, or handle the technical aspects of filmmaking keep them from making what can generously, even inaccurately, be deemed movies. They aren’t pretty, they aren’t good, but, goddammit, they exist!
During their heyday, these rapsploitation movies sometimes employed strategies even William Castle and Roger Corman would find tacky and cheap. A prime example of this would be the Albert Pyun-directed 1999 cheapie The Wrecking Crew, one of three similar movies Pyun shot in Europe back-to-back with nearly identical crews and casts to save money. This one provided second billing to Snoop Dogg for a “performance” that lasts less than a minute and feels crudely stitched together from footage shot for other entries in Pyun’s “rappers wandering around empty warehouses in Eastern Europe” trilogy.
I’ve lost touch with the rapsploitation genre over the years, just as I’ve increasingly lost touch with hip-hop as I’ve gotten older and ossified into middle age. These days, just about the only rapsploitation figure I make a point of following is 50 Cent, and that says more about my undying obsession with an artist I refuse on principle to refer to as “Fiddy” than it does about the changing face of rapsploitation.
But just as I decided to revisit the Tarantino knockoffs that dominated the early years of my career here at The A.V Club for the recent Dispatch Guns, Girls & Gambling, I was moved to return to the rapsploitation genre for Mac & Devin Go To High School, Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa’s companion film to their hit collaborative album of the same name.
Mac & Devin Go To High School is sort of the reverse How High. How High was about a pair of cool hip-hop dudes (Method Man and Redman) who smoke some special shit and become geniuses. Mac & Devin Go To High School is about a genius (Wiz Khalifa, who is slightly more convincing as a man who enjoys marijuana, women, and indiscriminate tattooing than he is as a Yale-bound valedictorian) who smokes some special shit and becomes a cool hip-hop dude. There are other key differences as well. How High is what is known in the parlance as “fun” and “entertaining,” where Mac & Devin is an endurance test that makes its 75-minute running time (padded by an endless end-credits sequence and several music video-style performances that are easily the film’s best moments) feel like an eternity in Amateur Town.
Stoner rappers and the makers of stoner comedies like to claim that their art stands on its own merits, that while being high can only improve the experience of watching their movies or listening to their music, it is not necessary. To its credit, Mac & Devin Go To High School makes no such claim. On the contrary, the film opens with “Slow Burn,” a sentient cartoon joint with the telltale bloodshot eyes of a serial stoner and the gravelly voice of Mystikal, addressing the audience directly and telling them to be “prepared” for the cinematic experience they are about to undergo.
Lest any sensitive, naïve souls imagine that this talking joint is talking about getting an icy Cherry Coke and some buttery popcorn, Slow Burn makes it clear that he’s actually referring to the deplorable practice of smoking marijuana:
“How you gonna watch a motherfucking weed movie without no motherfucking weed? […] Spark that shit up! Now, if you unfortunate right now and don’t have any weed, I’m sorry, but please stop this movie right now. It just won’t work! You can’t watch this shit without no weed. Stop. You don’t play baseball without no bat, do you? Exactly. For the same reason, you don’t watch a 3-D movie without 3-D glasses. So go figure that out, then put your goddamn ganja goggles on, and get ready for liftoff!”
At this point I was torn. A pot-smoking, martini-swilling sentient joint had just informed me that unless I was really fucking high, I had no business watching Mac & Devin Go To High School and would get nothing out of the experience. The flight-or-fight instinct kicked in. Who was I to flagrantly disobey a talking marijuana cigarette voiced by a convicted rapist? Talking marijuana cigarettes are a form of authority to be respected, yet I pushed ahead all the same, hoping against hope that despite Slow Burn’s words to the contrary, I would be able to enjoy Mac & Devin Go To High School while stone-cold sober and seated at my desk here at the offices of The A.V. Club.
Why didn’t I listen to Slow Burn? He gave me an out! I should not have doubted the veracity of that comical cartoon character’s words. He was not being self-deprecating so much as brutally, brutally honest. Slow Burn also proposes a stoner game for the film: Audiences are instructed to take a hit every time a character onscreen is seen “walking, talking, or breathing,” though I suspect that even if I had indulged in this game, I may have ended up finding the film somewhat lacking.
Snoop Dogg stars in Mac & Devin as a super-cool, super-slick “super senior” who has been in high school for 15 years, selling weed and sexing both the student body and the faculty without ever graduating or feeling the need to grow up. Snoop Dogg personifies charisma; he’s one of the most magnetic and irresistible performers in the history of pop music, but even he can’t sell the notion that a grown-ass man—ostensibly in his late 20s but played by an actor clearly in his late 30s—leering at teenaged girls in a high-school hallway is charming and fun and not kind of creepy.
Wiz Khalifa channels his inner Urkel as Dogg’s opposite, an uptight Poindexter with a girlfriend so controlling that she causes Slow Burn to once again enter the narrative to issue a “controlling bitch alert,” explaining, “There’s a huge population of controlling bitches on Earth and they keep expanding and you know what? It’s our motherfucking fault! If you a nigga like that and you’ve got a bitch like that, get out now! Either get them in line or kick them to the motherfucking curb!” (The end credits explain that Slow Burn’s words were written by Andy Milonakis of Andy Milonakis fame, who—as he explains in the excessively long, behind-the-scenes footage that plays over the end credits—plays a wheelchair-bound stoner who fucks lots of hot girls because he has such an enormous cock.)
That monologue delivered by Mystikal-as-Slow Burn would seem sexist and disturbing even if it weren’t uttered by a convicted rapist with a documented history of domestic abuse. But then Mac & Devin, in proud rapsploitation tradition, doesn’t have much use for women as anything other than sexual objects. In the kind of puerile joke the film specializes in, Khalifa’s girlfriend is intent on keeping her virginity until marriage so she’ll only have anal sex, a running joke that somehow makes it, exhausted and confused, to the very end of the film, when she’s shown having anal sex with Milonakis in a bathroom stall.
Snoop Dogg, meanwhile, has eyes for Teairra Mari, a new teacher at the school with a seemingly unprofessional weakness for low-cut, cleavage-baring outfits. Mari informs Dogg that she’ll only have sex with him if he graduates from high school. Dogg has a rival for Mari in the form of Derek D, who plays Assistant Principal Skinfloot, a stereotypical nerd whose demeanor and appearance marks him as John Hodgman’s non-union Mexican equivalent. Dogg now has all the motivation he needs to graduate, and Mac & Devin has what little plot it needs to technically qualify as a movie.
Mac & Devin doesn’t feature acting so much as the crude, eye-bugging, overly gesticulating burlesque of acting featured in music videos. Snoop Dogg is particularly guilty of this; then again, it’d be foolish and quixotic to expect nuance in a film that features bits like an endless sequence where a blonde student asks Dogg about a particularly massive joint she’d love to shove in her mouth and inhale deeply. Naturally, the entire school overhears this conversation via an intercom accident and assumes she’s talking about her insatiable desire for Snoop Dogg’s cock. Subtlety, thy name is most assuredly not Mac & Devin Go To High School.
What bit of plot there is to the film features a predictable arc: Dogg needs to grow up, graduate, and leave the comforting womb of high school behind in order to achieve full self-actualization. Khalifa needs to lighten the fuck up, smoke weed, get tattoos, and stop treating women like human beings.
Khalifa accomplishes a stunning transformation from amateur actor stiffly and unconvincingly portraying a nerd to the Wiz Khalifa some of us know and many of us feel indifferent toward during a montage sequence where mentor Snoop teaches him about the joys of all the various components of the Wiz Khalifa persona: smoking an insane amount of weed, using his body as a canvas for a random assortment of tattoos, and having anonymous sex.
The protégé completes his evolution when he uses his high-school valedictorian speech to perform “Young, Wild & Free,” the hit single from Mac & Devin Go To High School. “Young, Wild & Free” is everything Mac & Devin Go To High School should be but isn’t: fun, light, goofy, entertaining, and young. In moments like this, the movie possesses a strange, disarming innocence, but it forces audiences to endure a punishing gauntlet of misogyny and non-starting comedy to get to that middling moment of moderate enjoyment.
Mac & Devin Go To High School is littered with practical advice on consuming marijuana both from Slow Burn (who is as informative as he is candid and misogynistic) and another kid-friendly character named Captain Kush, offering the audience tips on the differences between edibles and smokeables as well as the various strains of pot. Given the film’s setting and title, it feels both insane and appropriate that a Snoop Dogg/Wiz Khalifa stoner comedy is far more educational than it is entertaining.
Just how bad is it? It’s fucking dreadful. Take Slow Burn’s advice, or better yet, steer clear altogether.