1. Fran Kranz, The Cabin In The Woods (2011)
Traditionally, the stoner character in film is the comedy relief, the modern equivalent of the drunk in old cartoons and comedies who sees something outlandish, examines his bottle of booze as if it’s to blame, and throws it away. Not that movie stoners generally swear off the habit, but they tend to be in a story to provide funny reactions and generally be laughably weak, compromised, or silly. Drew Goddard’s The Cabin In The Woods embraces the stereotype as it embraces so many other slasher-movie stereotypes—at least at the outset. Dollhouse’s Fran Kranz starts out playing a typically affable, dimwitted stoner, a fuzzy-faced, shaggy-haired dude who spouts weirdo philosophy while rolling joints and turns up for a road trip in a smoke-filled car, sucking on a giant bong. “I’m livin’ in a world of reefer, lemme alone,” he grunts defensively when his friends mock him for mistaking a stuffed wolf head for a moose. But like so much about the film (spoilers ahead…) the stereotype is meant to disarm viewers and convince them they know what to expect, and by the turning point of the film, Franz is taking down zombies with that bong. He’s also the one to find a way inside the giant illusion he and his friends are caught in, and to lead the charge through it, shooting monsters along the way. He can’t save the day, but at least he can choose what kind of victim he wants to be, and “Helpless comedy guy who dies first” isn’t it.
2. Kal Penn, Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle (2004)
Most stoner heroics revolve around the successful completion of simple, everyday tasks that are only heroic inasmuch as they seem impossible to the truly bombed. To everyone else, however, achievements like getting up off the couch to walk to the fridge can’t really be classified as heroic. Most of the missions undertaken by stoner buddies Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) during their titular voyage in Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle fall into this classification: The only people who seem impressed with the pair’s quest to find tiny fast-food burgers are the similarly afflicted, and the majority of the feats they achieve on their journey—fending off wildlife and clingy Princeton co-eds, escaping jail and creepy rednecks, and meeting Neil Patrick Harris—are simply matters of them overcoming their own stoned ineptitude. But early in the film, Penn does perform one legitimately heroic feat: After being mistaken for his doctor brother at a hospital, Penn is whisked into the OR to perform emergency surgery on a gunshot victim. Granted, Penn looks at the encounter mainly as an excuse to obtain medical marijuana, but the reluctant future med student proves surprisingly able for someone intent on sedating his patient with weed, and he succeeds in spite of himself where most people would fail, stoned or not.
3-4. Seth Rogen and James Franco, Pineapple Express
Movie stoners rarely seek out trouble—it goes against the stereotype. If movies have taught us anything about pot, it’s that people who smoke it generally like to sit around, snack, and generally exert themselves as little as possible. That description fits Seth Rogen and James Franco in Pineapple Express, with Rogen as a slacker process server and Franco as his overly friendly dealer. But when Rogen witnesses a murder, trouble finds him and Franco. Even on the lam, the duo makes time to spark up, which only feeds Rogen’s shouting paranoia. Maybe that’s a good thing, since a gangster, the Chinese mafia, a crooked cop, and even their friends are out to do them harm. But Rogen and Franco take them all down in a climactic shootout/fire. Bonus points for heroism go to the mild-mannered Franco, who steals the police car holding Rogen in a brazen, stupid—yet successful—attempt to free his friend.
5. Jon Favreau, PCU
As one of the few timeless aspects of the very-’90s comedy PCU, Jon Favreau’s Gutter is the quintessential college pothead—a dreadlocks-sporting oaf who can’t even get it together to go see a concert after his ride drops out. For most of the film, Gutter’s stoner odyssey finds him haphazardly drifting through town disappointing everyone, even himself: He falls prey to the allure of “one little binger” of a bong hit that turns into an incapacitating smoke-out, leaving him beset by confusing hallucinations (“Can you blow me where the Pampers is?”) and visions of a wasted future in politics, dredged up from his guilty conscience. Fortunately, even though he totally screws up, then abandons, his mission to score alcohol for the party that will magically solve everything for his beleaguered fraternity, fate smiles upon Gutter in the form of a happy accident. George Clinton’s similarly drifting tour bus happens by, their paths converge, and soon Gutter is the “legend” who brought Parliament-Funkadelic to a campus bash—even if he never has any idea what he’s doing, and none of this makes a lick of sense, even in stoner logic.
6. Josh Hartnett, The Faculty (1998)
Drug users rarely fare well in film; drug dealers do even worse. In The Faculty, Josh Hartnett plays a high-school drug-slinger with a goofy haircut, the sort of mid-level bad guy who usually gets his just deserts sometime around the second reel. But when body-snatching aliens invade the school, taking over teachers and students alike, it’s up to Hartnett and a band of ragtag misfits to do what ragtag misfits always do in such situations: scream, run around, get slowly picked off, but finally win the day. Hartnett himself proves key to the anti-invasion force when his special drug, a new blend of his own design, turns out to identify who’s human and who’s an alien. Not only is the druggie the hero, his product is the McGuffin that defeats the monsters and saves the world.
7. Willem Dafoe, Platoon (1986)
Charlie Sheen, the hero of Oliver Stone’s coming-of-age-in-Vietnam film Platoon, is torn between two competing father figures: Tom Berenger, a warped, evil version of the traditional military-movie badass, and Willem Dafoe, a good soldier but also a good man, capable of tenderness to those who need it. When Berenger helps instigate a My Lai-style massacre, Dafoe arrives on the scene and breaks it up, and his example snaps Sheen back to his senses just as he’s on the verge of going over to the dark side. (Berenger, fearing his rival will report what happened to their superiors, begins plotting to kill him, confirming that Dafoe is too good for this war, if not this world.) The differences between the two men are symbolized in their choices of recreational activities: Berenger takes to the bottle, which only feeds his paranoid meanness, while Dafoe throws pot parties in his tent and introduces Chris to the pleasures and socializing effects of marijuana. (He even introduces him to homoeroticism, when he holds a rifle butt up to the younger man’s lips and blows smoke into his lungs from the other end.)
8. Michael Caine, Children Of Men (2006)
In the dystopian 2027 of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children Of Men, Michael Caine, pot dealer to protagonist Clive Owen, is a living anachronism, a mangy, well-baked relic of the 1960s—a leftover from a time when people still had optimistic dreams. Caine just seems to want to vegetate peaceably in his house in the woods, perfecting his recipe for strawberry-flavored marijuana. But when Owen stops at Caine’s house with the bad guys in hot pursuit and needs time to get away, the old guy steps up, sacrificing his own life to buy his friend precious seconds. He goes down insulting and laughing at the bastards who murder him, which, in this movie, is more than most people can hope to accomplish.
9. Treat Williams, Hair (1979)
Milos Forman’s screen adaptation of the 1968 Broadway musical Hair makes some significant departures from the original version, and one of the biggest is in the ultimate fate of Treat Williams, the leader of the jolly hippie band at the center of the movie. Army inductee and representative square John Savage meets Williams and his troupe in New York City, and they promptly introduce Savage to free love, copious drugs, and the joys of life outside of conformism and early-onset adulthood. But that doesn’t keep the Army at bay, and Savage gets sent off to basic training, with the understanding that he’s headed to Vietnam. On a lark, Williams dons his uniform and takes his place for a night, so Savage can spend a last evening with his girlfriend before being shipped off to Vietnam. But when Savage’s unit departs earlier than planned, Williams chooses to keep his mouth shut and leave for Vietnam in Savage’s stead rather than exposing the ruse and undoubtedly getting them both in deep trouble. In fact, Williams dies in Vietnam in Savage’s place. There’s no telling whether he acquits himself well in combat, because the entire series of events happens in montage over the course of one song, but it’s certainly suggested that he sacrificed his life and freedom for his friend, in an act of commitment that’s far off his usual casual, free-spirited druggie hedonism.
10. Devon Sawa, Idle Hands (1999)
The prankish spirit of Roger Corman and Rock ’N’ Roll High School pervades 1999’s Idle Hands, a dark comedy that unfortunately was scheduled for release 10 days after the Columbine massacre—a problem for a film that culminates with a gory showdown in a school. In true B-movie tradition, Idle Hands luxuriates in bad taste and flagrant irresponsibility that extends to not just making the heroes (Devon Sawa, Seth Green, and Elden Henson) inveterate stoners, but making marijuana use crucial to the climax. Throughout Idle Hands, Sawa is menaced by his possessed hand, which he eventually chops off after it causes him to murder his best friends. In the film’s climax, Sawa blows second-hand smoke at the disconnected but still-dangerous hand, as it operates a puppet at the big school dance. It promptly goes from homicidal to chill, at least long enough for Sawa to defeat it. Parents might have complained about the film’s seeming endorsement of recreational drug use among teens, but not enough people saw it to matter.
11. Danny McBride, Your Highness (2011)
From Eastbound & Down to Pineapple Express, recreational drug use is a regular cornerstone of Danny McBride’s comedy aesthetic. That carried over to Your Highness, a god-awful fantasy stoner waste of everyone’s time that casts McBride as the black-sheep scion of a royal family who isn’t remotely interested in getting his shit together and laying off the weed, until circumstances force him to embark on an epic quest alongside more conventionally heroic brother James Franco. McBride doesn’t make a very convincing hero; his turn toward heroism, as he helps save princess Zooey Deschanel from an evil warlock, feels more a matter of narrative necessity than anything organic. But the film at least eschews the stoner-movie cliché where a protagonist has to climactically throw away the weed or swear off drugs forever to illustrate moral growth. McBride begins the movie a stoner and ends it a stoner, even though he’s learned a lesson or two and ostensibly grown as a person. Alas, that’s just about the only thing this cynical, self-indulgent mess has going for it.
12. Edward Norton, Leaves Of Grass (2009)
Leaves Of Grass has so many outlandish characters, it’s difficult to choose a favorite. There’s Susan Sarandon as a hippie burnout, Richard Dreyfuss as a devoutly Jewish drug kingpin named Pug Rothbaum, Keri Russell as a catfish-noodling poet, and Sons Of Anarchy’s Maggie Siff as a murder-forgiving rabbi. And then there’s Edward Norton in a dual role as Ivy League classics professor Bill, and his ne’er-do-well, weed-smoking brother, Brady. Writer-director Tim Blake Nelson even has a meaty supporting role as Brady’s right-hand man, Bolger. While both brothers are smart and ambitious, Bill uses his gifts to become a heavyweight in academia, while Brady applies his toward developing his own hydroponic pot for sale and personal consumption. In spite of his skill and agency, Brady also partakes a bit too much in his own product. (One of the film’s biggest laughs is when Brady admits he often requires a dictionary when reading his brother’s published work: “Not the Merriam-Webster, either, the motherfuckin’ O.E.D.”) When Brady promises his pregnant fiancée that he’ll cease his illegal operation and indulgences, he’s determined to make good on that promise, even though he owes Rothbaum a considerable sum. Identical-twin hijinks ensue when Brady decides the only way to keep his vow to his family is to kill Rothbaum and make it look like a hate crime, but this plan goes awry, and things don’t end well for Brady. Still, he manages to clear his brother’s name as a murder suspect, introduce Bill to his dream girl, and engineer a reconciliation between his twin and their mother. Not bad for a habitual smoker of “nature’s delivery system for goodness.” [AB]
13-15. Dave Chappelle, Jim Breuer, and Guillermo Díaz, Half-Baked
After happily maintaining a long-term lifestyle revolving around little more than regular inhalation of marijuana, Half-Baked buddies Dave Chappelle, Jim Breuer, and Guillermo Díaz are prompted to get industrious, possibly for the first time in their lives, and team up to raise funds to bail a fellow stoner out of jail. (He accidentally kills a diabetic police horse by feeding it all the sugary food earmarked for combating his group’s munchies.) Once Chappelle realizes the lab where he works as a janitor is doing an FDA study on the medicinal uses of marijuana, the trio embarks on a plan to abscond from the lab with as much weed as possible; along the way, they perpetually convince themselves, “We’re not drug dealers, we’re fundraisers.” Risking life, limb, and the wrath of a local drug lord, all while narrowly avoiding arrest themselves by cutting a deal with the cops, the protagonists successfully save the day and win their friend a pardon, smoking all the way.
16-17. Jay and Silent Bob, Dogma
In Kevin Smith’s first film, Clerks, he and Jason Mewes essentially play living set dressing: Jay and Silent Bob are oddball pot dealers who hang around the convenience store where most of the action takes place, smoking up and occasionally harassing customers. Smith gives himself some trenchant words of wisdom at the end, but they’re still marginal clown characters. When they returned in Mallrats a year later, they’d stepped up their game, taking key roles in the plot—but getting some game-show contestants stoned and playing a sex tape in public to get the protagonists back with their estranged girlfriends still only amounts to stoner goofery, not full-on heroism. And they took a step back from the center of the story in Chasing Amy, though Silent Bob once again stepped up with a monologue laying out the theme and title of the film. But by the time Dogma came out in 1999, it felt like Smith was tired of appearing in all his own films as anything less than the hero. There are other heroes in the film, notably Linda Fiorentino as a frustrated Catholic and the ostensible protagonist, but Smith in particular triumphs over and over throughout the film: He and Mewes get to save Fiorentino repeatedly, fighting off the “Stygian Triplets” skaters and the banished angels threatening to destroy creation, killing a demon played by Jason Lee, and destroying another demon made from a pile of shit. They wind up doing so much of the heroics, there’s barely anything for Fiorentino to do herself, except take God off life support at the end of the movie.
18-plus. Nick Frost, Luke Treadaway, and the rest of the gang, Attack The Block (2011)
In the kickass British movie Attack The Block, it falls to a bunch of teenage muggers, along with their associates and anyone they pick up along the way, to repel an alien invasion of their block of council flats. After the boys claim their first kill, they drag the carcass back to the “weed room” watched over by pot dealer Nick Frost; by the time a full-scale, intergalactic secret war is in progress, the weed room is serving as a sort of command center. Luke Treadway, one of Frost’s regular customers, is the movie’s resident scientific brain, analyzing the evidence at hand and coming up with a theory that helps the gang members defeat the alien attackers. It’s sort of like an updated, science-fiction twist on those stories about the major role played by “social undesirables” and other malcontents who resisted the Nazis, except with a more pronounced case of the munchies.