Whatever It Is You’re Looking For

Smiley Face (2007)

Anna Faris in Smiley Face
Uncork’d Entertainment

“If you could, with a single act, change the whole trajectory of your life, would you do it?” – Jane F 

*

Smoking weed itself isn’t necessarily funny. But, most things are funnier if you’re smoking weed. 

*

We begin on a Ferris wheel. A blonde in a red hoodie is listening to a disembodied voice, possibly God.  

“This is the story of how a person got from point A, to point Z,” he says. “Some call it fate. Others, chance. But whatever you call it, it sure is an interesting thing to ponder, don’t you think? The twisted paths our lives follow. How did you get here, the place where you are, right now at this very moment—what series of events brought you to this place?”

*

Gregg Araki’s Smiley Face is a film about the worst laid plans. Our hero is Jane F (Anna Faris), an LA stoner and sometimes actor. Over the course of one day, Jane is only supposed to do two things: go to an audition and pay her power bill. But after waking and baking, Jane commits the movie’s original sin—she eats some cupcakes. The cupcakes are explicitly marked by her roommate Steve (Danny Masterson) DO NOT EAT, THAT MEANS YOU JANE. In her defense, though, they are very good looking cupcakes. 

Unfortunately, they happen to be weed cupcakes. Which means that the already-stoned Jane is now stratospherically baked. This also means that she has to adjust her plans for the day. Her new day now has four goals:

First, buy more pot to replace Steve’s brownies.

Second, use the money Steve left for the power bill to purchase said pot.

Third, go to the audition.

And fourth, make the new brownies.

She makes it as far as step one, buying more weed from her dealer (Adam Brody, in appalling white dreads), to whom she owes so much money that he insists she pay him back by 3 that afternoon at a hemp festival in Venice Beach, or he will repossess her mattress. 

From there, everything goes wrong, and the farce gets going. Each decision Jane makes leads to the next disaster. She burns the new weed while making butter; she’s kicked out of her audition; she gets an acquaintance to agree to drive her to Venice, only to ditch him at a dentist’s office. By the time she makes it to hemp fest, the police are on her trail and her dealer is long gone. She never bakes the new cupcakes.

The events of Smiley Face do make sense—if you really wanted to, you could explain the exact logic of action and consequence that leads Jane to the Ferris wheel finale. There are stakes, goals, and obstacles. But, like all good farces, everything is heightened to the point that causality becomes nonsensical. Real people would never behave so absurdly. And, like all good stoner movies, the reason that these people are behaving absurdly is that they’re high—or, in this case, one person is extremely, extremely high. So the line from A to Z exists, but it might look more like a spiral; it’s not so much about how Jane got to where she was, but how it felt getting there. 

In a word, it felt like being stoned. Foggy, tuned into all the wrong frequencies—or all the right ones, depending on your perspective. In theater, the Pochinko Technique teaches that clown logic takes the most roundabout route to get to any desired goal. How does a clown screw in a lightbulb? She holds the bulb in place while walking in circles underneath it. If clown logic is the cockeyed pursuit of a different way of doing things, then stoner logic is a logic of blurriness, of senses that are both heightened and dulled. It’s a way of doing things that distracts from what we normally prioritize (rules and regularities, all the things we have to do in a day), and lets alternative impulses push through. 

Weed affects everyone differently; it makes some more relaxed, others more self-conscious. Stoners are a particular type, for whom weed is a daily ritual, a means of taking the edge off and letting other small pleasures in. A stoner could screw in the lightbulb, but probably after playing some video games and making a sandwich and—shit, where’s the mayonnaise? I can’t see, it’s so fuckin’ dark. Oh, right, the bulb. 

*

The disembodied voice continues: “Where are you in life? Are things turning out the way you had planned? And by the way, when was the last time you spoke with your parents? Don’t you think you ought to give them a call?”

*

In many farces, there are several ridiculous people behaving ridiculously. Movies like Airplane!; It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World; and Burn After Reading rely on the spiraling effect of multiple interactions between thin, outsized, off-kilter characters making one badly considered choice after another. Often, the societal logic around them is off, too; none of it quite tracks. The humor is in the defamiliarizing of the familiar—a world that looks and sounds like ours, but isn’t: Wet Hot American Summer takes place at what seems like your typical summer camp, but the counselors and the activities are far too outlandish for this to be any trip down memory lane. Someone once told me a good joke goes one, two, four; a great joke goes one, two, banana. It’s not just the thrill of the unexpected that makes farces funny. It’s the joy of leaning into ridiculousness, of accessing the unhinged in a way that we can’t actually live out. Real life is absurd, yes, but rarely does that absurdity ever feel fun.  

In Smiley Face, though, there is only one ridiculous person behaving ridiculously. The friction that propels the movie forward comes from the fact that our girl Jane is high out of her mind, and everyone else around her couldn’t be closer to the ground. There are no other weirdos, no other oddities, just Jane and her red sweater bumbling through the vast sameness of life. 

It’s important that Jane is alone in her journey. The stoner comedy canon is rife with duos: Cheech and Chong, Harold and Kumar, Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott. Together, they have a buddy to play off, someone who sees the world through the same lens, even—or especially—when everyone else has had enough of their shenanigans. 

But Jane F is a party of one. She’s also the first woman to ever front a stoner movie—a literal trailblazer. Keeping Jane solo allows the film to be driven entirely by her hijinks, painting a beautifully washed out portrait of a girl on too many drugs to handle. It also provides a window into the kind of girl Jane is: a little lost and maybe a little lonely, even on her sober days. After all, there’s more stigma attached to the notion of smoking alone. Throughout the film Jane draws the ire and pity of those around her in a way she might not if she had a buddy to make her deviance a little more socially acceptable in pre-Prop 64 Los Angeles. Her solo status is part of what sets Smiley Face apart from other stoner comedies, turning it into more of a character study than the typical farce. It’s one thing for a single stoner to be a bit character in an ensemble comedy, but another to have her as the protagonist, showing us the world through her red eyes. 

*

“A glass of orange juice sure would hit the spot about now, wouldn’t it? And some Tostitos?”

“That’s it! Oh man, that’s exactly what I’m thinking! O.J. and Tostitos. Jesus, it’s like you’re reading my thoughts or something.”

Calmly, the voice replies: “I am.”

*

Though we don’t know much about Jane, some details are filled in along the way. She has a creepy sci-fi nerd for a roommate (it bears noting that Masterson has been accused of assault by multiple women, and his scenes in Smiley Face might be triggering). She studied economics in college, but it “didn’t really work out,” although she can still point out her dealer’s incorrect understanding of Reaganomics. She acts sometimes, other times gets by on unemployment. There’s a brief phone call with a boyfriend, who, upon realizing she’s stoned at 10:45 a.m., gets angry and tells her things aren’t working out. Jane is unfazed.   

In fact, the only thing Jane really seems to care about is her mattress. She spent $999 on a mattress advertised as the “world’s most comfortable bed.” It is her prized possession. When she thinks about it throughout the film, a choir of angelic voices sings in the score. She also loves lasagna, which leads to the movie’s best inner-monologue, in which her musings on lasagna lead her to decide that she should put up a poster of President Garfield in her apartment. Can you track the A to Z on that one? Jane’s two greatest loves seem to stem from specifically stoner priorities—comfort and food—while her passion for “normal” interests—love, money, work—is minimal.   

Jane is, in many ways, infuriating: she owes money to seemingly everyone in her life, she takes advantage of the people around her, and, just generally, causes a lot of confusion. She’s a middle-class, college-educated white girl who gets away with much more than anyone who wasn’t white, hot, and wealthy would. But Faris brings such an innate likeability to the role that it’s hard not to root for her. She is incredible as Jane—her comic timing and physicality shine, but it’s her wide-eyed enthusiasm for even the most absurd conceits (also on display in the Scary Movie franchise) that makes Jane a lovable mess.

Faris commits to every bit with an almost childlike honesty—it never feels like she’s winking at you or breaking the spell. In one scene, after visions of demons stop Jane from getting her car out of the garage, Faris rolls across the floor with such precision that you completely believe Jane thinks demons are following her. Her facial expressions and voice, too, are key: Faris’ jaw hangs open for almost the entire film, her vowels constantly stretched in awe. When her boyfriend breaks up with her, she yells back: “I don’t understand! You’re speaking in riddles!” This is possibly the best retort to a breakup in cinematic history, but Jane is completely earnest. 

In this way, it’s not that you agree with Jane’s decisions, but you can understand the state from which they emerge. Araki, too, works hard to ground us—or float us—in her perspective. He pays special attention to the sensory overload of being too high; the movie is brightly lit throughout, often fading to white instead of black. Sound effects punctuate Jane’s emotions; bells let us know she’s had a realization, screams tell us she’s startled. Araki aesthetically mirrors Jane’s mental state—he gives us dreamy landscapes when she’s blissed out and uncomfortably tight close-ups when she’s stressed. Sometimes he cuts to a wider shot to show us how other people are seeing her, like when she arrives out of breath at her audition and starts panting, tongue-out, in front of the elevator. In these moments, we’re laughing at her. But a lot of the time, we’re just along for the ride. 

Jane is, at the end of the day, someone who can’t seem to figure out what she wants. What happened to her between college and now is a mystery, but probably also what happens to a lot of people: you finish school, you can’t find meaningful work, you don’t know what to do with yourself. So, you smoke a lot of weed. Days become weeks or months. Friends, jobs, dates come and go. Time expands and hangs, like smoke in the air. 

*

“What were we talking about?” the blonde finally asks the voice.

“How you got here,” he answers.

“Yeah,” she says. “Jesus Christ, I can’t believe I’m still so…”

“Stoned?”

*

Though Jane is the ridiculous protagonist, Smiley Face features a stellar supporting cast of “straight-man” characters, the regular people who are drawn into Jane’s disastrous day and turned inside out by it. 

These people are just trying to get on with their lives, but a lot of them are also unnecessarily uptight. At Jane’s audition, she encounters another actress in the waiting room (Jayma Mays) who nervously edges away from her when she pulls out a bag of pot. The actual audition finds Jane confronted with a cold casting director (Jane Lynch at her most severe), who has an I <3 LAPD sticker on her desk, and eventually calls security on Jane when she tries to sell her weed. These characters aren’t funny in and of themselves, but there’s humor in the way Jane’s antics accentuate their blandness.

The most memorable of these squares is Steve’s friend Brevin (John Krasinski, leaning into his nerdiness), who comes over to swap comics and watch movies. He falls in love with our sloppy Jane during a flashback montage in which he stares at her while she eats and sleeps with her mouth open. The farce takes the opposites attract logic to the extreme: if Jane is a hurricane, Brevin is a luke-warm puddle. He tells Jane, for example, that he loves going to the dentist, because it’s nice to know his teeth are being taken care of. The bumper sticker on his car says “Never stop believing in yourself!” He and Faris have an anti-chemistry; sitting side by side, after she convinces him to drive her to Venice, they occupy separate self-contained worlds—his regulated by rules, hers propelled by impulse. 

The only unusual person in Jane’s world is her old economics professor, a Marxist who opened her up to some “radical ideas,” she tells Brevin. But we never meet him—only his polite and proper mother, who mistakenly gives Jane her son’s first edition copy of The Communist Manifesto, believing her to be his TA. 

Taken together, these characters come to represent a sober version of life. They are the people who would screw in the lightbulb correctly on the first try, the ones who finished college, got jobs, and bought houses. We encounter them in mostly uninteresting settings: a cramped casting director’s office; a middle-class LA neighborhood, with nice green lawns and white picket fences. The brightness adds to the sense of uniformity, blending Jane’s interactions together into one big haze. They’re not all necessarily wealthy—at one point Jane pisses off a bus driver on LA public transit—but they are, by and large, following the rules, keeping the world spinning as it’s supposed to, while Jane throws everything out of orbit.  

The fact that these characters are so dull makes Jane a breath of fresh air. Their reactions to her, while intense, might not necessarily be wrong. But Araki takes pains to make our experiences of these characters uncomfortably intimate. He does tight close-ups on the faces of Jane’s casualties as they yell at her, turning their often legitimate claims into overblown outrage. Seen with such proximity, these responses to Jane’s interruptions feel, well, absurd. They’re all just so mad, man.

The humor here comes from the gaps between reality and what it could feel like, the way we’re supposed to behave and whatever Jane is doing instead. The joke is on Jane for being so fucked up, but also it’s a little bit on everyone around her for caring. Jane’s impulsive antics add uncertainty to the mundane, a spark of adventure to the saturated LA landscape. In her heightened state, she brings out the flatness of everything around her. It’s all too saturated, too stale. Why care about love, money, and work if they feel like this? Why not trade them for a comfy mattress and some good lasagna? 

If this is living, Jane would rather be high.

*

“So, go on, what am I thinking about now?” she asks the voice.

“Well, there are many thoughts racing through your head. The first concerns the orange juice and Tostitos. And the second, the second thought, oh how it vexes you.”

“What is it?”

“It is this: why are you having a conversation with Roscoe Lee Browne?”

“Roscoe Lee,” our Jane exclaims. “Holy shit, you’re famous!”

“Yes, I am,” the voice of actor Roscoe Lee Browne replies.

*

Jane’s hero moment comes as the film builds toward its final act. We have, at this point, watched her eat her roommate’s pot brownies, attempt to sell drugs at an audition, freak out some people at the dentist, and steal The Communist Manifesto from her old professor. However, here there are many tips on how to deal with a drug addict loved one and how to help them recover faster. After she escapes capture by the police, she finds herself next to an open truck, which looks like it’s heading west. Jane realizes she can hop in and, with a little luck, end up in Venice. 

Of course, that’s not what happens, because our Jane is not prone to luck. Instead, she ends up at a sausage factory in El Monte. The truck drivers, played by Danny Trejo and John Cho (the latter an icon of the stoner comedy), are less than thrilled to find her when they open up the vehicle. Trejo’s Albert wants to get rid of her, but Cho’s Mikey finds her endearing, and the boys let her follow them into the factory. When their floor manager asks who she is, she glances at her copy of the Manifesto, then tells him she’s here to unionize. The manager protests, and Jane launches into a monologue for the ages: “You sir, stand here in this warehouse of death—and you have the audacity to tell me that you have a generous benefit package?”

She picks up steam on the factory floor: “It is a tale as old as man—the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle,” Jane declaims. Araki cuts to images that seem to bolster her points: strings of meat emerge from a processer, a mechanized slicer cuts through a flank. While Jane rails against the exploitation of factory labor, he shows us how the sausage gets made. “Oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carrying on an uninterrupted fight—a fight that each time ended in either revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in it’s complete and total ruin!”

She throws her fist in the air. A crowd cheers.

The speech is funny, partly because Jane is applying the same stoner enthusiasm we’ve seen her reserve for chips and mattresses to the unfair working conditions of capitalism. But it’s also exhilarating: Jane is a little unhinged, but she’s right, and it’s a thrill watching her stand up for something that she seems to genuinely believe in—at least while it still has her attention. It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that this heroic outburst happens the first time the film really departs middle-class LA; Jane, out of her familiar surroundings, finds something other than her own impulses to care about. Her stoner logic has led her here, breaking the repetition of daily life, to the edge of giving a shit.  

Just as quickly, though, the bubble bursts. It was all, of course, a fantasy. The scene rewinds, and we learn that instead of her articulate anti-capitalist tirade, Jane sort of just stumbled around: “You think you’re so…um…ah…Jesus!…And all I have to say is, fuck, man! I mean, this situation is totally fucked!” The reveal is both funny and a little sad, a reminder that all the smart political bullshit we spout when we’re high is, usually, meaningless. You’ve figured out how to fix it all, and tomorrow you’ll wake up, go to work, same as it ever was. 

But in that brief moment before the rewind, if you believe in Jane, you might also think she finally believes in herself, too.  

After the manager inevitably kicks her out, Jane is offered a ride to Venice by the smitten Mikey, who asks if she’s a communist. In one of the only moments in the film where Jane sounds resigned, or—maybe—self-aware, Faris’ voice scoops low, and she laughs. “No, man, I’m not a communist.” 

And then she asks him, her tone curious: “If you could, with a single act, change the whole trajectory of your life, would you do it?”

*

“Okay, ready for number three?” Roscoe asks.

“You bet I am, Roscoe,” Jane answers. 

“Your third thought is simply this: how in the hell did I end up on a Ferris wheel?”

*

Farces are often fast. There’s so much plot to race through, so many threads to tangle up in each other, there’s not usually much time to stop and smell the kush. Stoners, though, are not typically fast people. What makes a stoner comedy into a funny farce is the choice to put slow-moving stoners into situations that require fast action. In Smiley Face, Jane moves a mile a minute, as one bad decision whirls into the next. But she does also experience a few seconds of peace—small moments of beauty that a sober person might not stop to notice. This, too, is stoner logic: enjoying the journey, forgetting the destination.

First, when she’s kicked out of her audition. She looks up, and sees a smiley face in the sky. 

Second, when she’s kicked out of the factory. She looks up again and lets the sun soak her face. 

Third, when a beautiful woman on a pink motorcycle picks her up off the freeway, and drives her the rest of the way to Venice. 

And fourth, when she finally arrives in Venice, and realizes she’s too late to meet her dealer. She walks over to the beach, gazes out at the waves, and finds free tickets to the Ferris wheel, buried in the sand.

*

“How did you know that?” Jane asks.

“Because, you fucking pothead,” Roscoe says, “you’re talking to yourself.”

*

We end at the beginning. Stoned, on a Ferris wheel. We know how we got here now, but also, how did we get here? 

Jane’s pursuers have caught up with her. They wait at the bottom of the Ferris wheel, urging her to come down, to give back the Manifesto. Jane sees them, and she stands on the edge of the wheel, waving to all the people she’s pissed off over the course of the day. While she’s waving, a California wind picks up, and sends the Manifesto flying. Pages are ripped from the book and flutter through the air, hanging in the breeze. The Communist Manifesto spreads itself over Venice Beach.

Jane is arrested and sentenced to community service. 

*

In Smiley Face, the fog brings clarity, and vice versa. The clear-headed people that Jane interacts with mostly exist in a state of dull tension, one altered by Jane: she interrupts their routines, disrupts the patterns, throws into relief the tightness of their lives. For Jane, this altered state leads to disaster, but also gives way to a few moments of bliss, or something like it. The people who chase her all over town bring her to the precipice of the Ferris wheel, where she encounters God/Roscoe/herself. The sun is bright, the pages fall. The rest is out of her control. 

In the only scenes Smiley Face doesn’t spend with Jane, we watch the pages of the Manifesto landing far and wide. A page lands in the casting director’s office; another outside the sausage factory, where Albert and the manager are having a laugh. The Manifesto manages to reach every secondary character whose best-laid plans for the day were interrupted by our valiantly zooted Jane. Do they pick it up?

There is, in all of this, the sheer randomness of being. There is also an absurd yet logical series of events that follow one another, everything in its right place. And some amount of magic, too. You could say it’s almost like a dialectic: the push and pull between a stoned nuisance who can’t follow the plan, and the sunny stasis of everything else. 

You could also say Jane made this mess for herself. This is how the secondary characters see her: as a fuck-up and a mooch who ultimately gets what she deserves. But wasn’t it fun, watching her play by her own stoned rules? Didn’t it feel good, complaining with her at the dentist’s, smiling with her at the sun? Jane might not be the messiah, and she might not even be a communist, but her mode of being—unreliable, disruptive, high—gets at something other than the mandatory functionality of capitalism. That said, if she was a little more reliable, she might also have people to call on days like this. 

Weed, then, is not the solution to Jane’s problems. But it opens up other potential ways of working them through. Smoking pot can be a way into thinking and feeling differently; a means of accessing pleasure and creativity, alternatives to the grind of the everyday. Not everyone gets to use weed like this—the drug’s sale and purchase are stratified by racist legal systems and police forces—but everyone should. And even if the political bullshit we spout when we’re high is meaningless, ideas do have their own ways of filtering out past bedroom doors. The most unpopular proposals sometimes find themselves scattered on the beach.

So maybe Jane never changes her life with a single act, or maybe she already has. Maybe she wakes up the next day and gets a job, pays her friends back, apologizes to her professor; maybe she sits right back down to smoke some more. Or maybe there’s a way for Jane’s stoner logic to permeate the world around her, and bring her closer to it.

Everything could just go on exactly as it was. After all, it’s 2006 and the housing market is booming. Who cares about Marxism? Time might continue to hang, or maybe something else will emerge. The future is hazy—have a cupcake. The possibilities, at least, are endless.