In Easy Rider, an ACLU lawyer played by an impossibly young Jack Nicholson waves off a pal trying to offer him some marijuana, claiming it "leads to harder stuff." And in a way, he's right. Before the film is over, Nicholson's self-described "square" will be murdered by some local thugs . Thankfully, this tragic turn – the pivot point of Dennis Hopper's seminal counterculture odyssey – is one of the only instances in film history where smoking weed has serious consequences. Because as sub-genres go, cannabis cinema is pretty mellow stuff.
This makes it preferable to the majority of drug-centric movies, which generally start in manic high spirits then proceed on a downward spiral ending in ruin, heartbreak and death. But there is no such thing as a moralistic pothead movie, and while smoking up is often a precursor to violence in horror films – putting it in good company with casual sex and weekends at the lake – it's rare to find a toker who gets severely, much less fatally, punished by a filmmaker for his or her habit. Most of the canonical figures of cannabis cinema, from Cheech and Chong to Harold and Kumar, are good-natured dopes who mean well and whose penalties for overindulging are rather small in the great scheme of things. Instead of ending up facedown in a fountain Scarface-style, they're more likely to just bashfully ask some dude about the whereabouts of their car.
The relatively low dramatic stakes and wispy, drifting tone of cannabis cinema might imply that the films are innocuous, but that's not quite accurate. If it's true that most pothead movies happen to be comedies, the fact is that some of them are more loonily profound than a dozen straight Oscar-baiting dramas. Even if its sequels obeyed the laws of diminishing returns, Danny Leiner's original Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004) remains one of the sharpest and most socially perceptive studio comedies of the new century, an authentic Jersey Shore picaresque whose fully-baked heroes' insatiable munchies are posed as a sort of second-generation American birthright: life, liberty and the pursuit of hamburgers.
One of Harold and Kumar's minor characters asserts that "in the end, the universe tends to unfold as it should," which could be the great, generous epigram of stoner cinema. In both the Coen brothers' sublime The Big Lebowski (1998) and Gregg Araki's charming Smiley Face (2007), Los Angeles-area layabouts wander around in circles until the surrounding narratives just sort of work themselves out. Both films feature hilariously addled lead performances: Jeff Bridges's bowling-alley-dweller in the former is too glazed to function as the Philip Marlowe-esque detective that the Fates would have him be, but fights manfully through the haze to figure out who exactly peed on his rug. In the latter, Anna Faris so fully inhabits the alternately anxious and sleepy consciousness of the chronic puffer that she's almost a documentary presence – not that this keeps the film from getting progressively weirder.
Not every actor can play stoned convincingly: The only bum notes in Stanley Kubrick's valedictory Eyes Wide Shut (1999) were struck in the scene where Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman got overly zonked-out on two tiny little joints (perhaps they were laced with horse tranquilizers). But for the most part, performers fare better miming the comparatively benign effects of marijuana than when OD'ing on the harder stuff, and pot movies are similarly more enjoyable than those that lie on the other side of the proverbial "gateway." We'll give the final word to another self-described "square," Woody Allen, who in Annie Hall echoes Nicholson's Easy Rider demurral by saying that pot makes him "too unbearably wonderful" but then, a few scenes later, nervously sneezes about $2,000 worth of cocaine across the room. It's a novel way of Just Saying No that also applies to the whole motley lot of cocaine cinema. Far better to keep your nose clean and puff, puff, pass.
Up in smoke: The five best pot movies
Up in Smoke (Lou Adler, 1978): The granddaddy of all modern stoner flicks, featuring a heroic duo who don't just smoke joints but attempt to drive a van constructed out of hardened THC resin across the U.S.-Mexico Border.
Dazed and Confused(Richard Linklater, 1993): Linklater's wonderful coming-of-age comedy features one of the greatest pro-drug monologues of all time – an ode to George and Martha Washington by the perpetually blazed Slater. "Every day when George would come home, she would have a big, fat bowl just waiting for him, man.…"
How High(Jesse Dylan, 2001): We admit it: We only included this one because of a scene where Method Man and Redman attempt to bump their collective IQ by exhuming the corpse of John Quincy Adams and smoking his remains. But that's a pretty good reason.
Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle(Danny Leiner, 2004): There are plenty of great non-pot-related gags in this one, but the fantasy sequence where Kumar (Kal Penn) imagines what life would be like if he was married to a gigantic bag of weed – pretty grim as it turns out – is a surreal mini-masterpiece.
Smiley Face(Gregg Araki, 2007): Anna Faris's hapless actress accidentally eats an entire box of pot brownies and wreaks a path of havoc through the greater Los Angeles area . In a just world, she'd have won an Oscar.