These films are period pieces looking back at weed’s salad days. What about the aging potheads themselves? People like Bill Clinton, our chief executive from 1992 to 2000, or George W. Bush, his successor, who both tried to dispel the traces of their former indulgences like a teenager spraying air freshener? Or more poignantly, what about those who had the courage to stick to their (potential drug) convictions? Like the legendary Tommy Chong himself, who, as seen in Josh Gilbert’s 2005 documentary a/k/a Tommy Chong, tried to make ends meet in his post-Smoke-sequel, pre–Cheech & Chong reunion days by selling bongs and other paraphernalia online? That is, until a multi-million-dollar sting operation conducted by eager-beavers in John Ashcroft’s Department of Justice nailed his ass and sent him to prison. You can run but you can’t hide, evildoer!
Chong’s fictional counterparts don’t make out much better. Jeff Bridges’s “the Dude” in the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski (1998) vaguely recalls smoking dope and occupying university buildings once upon a time, but all he cares about now (it’s 1991, during the buildup to the first Gulf War) is smoking dope, drinking “Caucasians,” and maybe bowling (does he in fact roll a single ball in the entire movie?). That changes when a case of mistaken identity ends with his rug getting peed on, compounded by a case of mistaken machismo. Egged on by his pal Walter (John Goodman), whose Vietnam past has been stirred up by the senior Bush’s anti-Iraq rhetoric, the Dude decides that this outrage against his carpet “will not stand.”
For his troubles, he ends up in a dopey noir-ish nightmare involving nihilists, a pornographer, and a Busby Berkeley–like production number starring Julianne Moore and Saddam Hussein set in a bowling alley.
The Dude, nonetheless, abides. So, too, does Lester (Kevin Spacey), in Sam Mendes’s Oscar-winning American Beauty (1999). Lester ineffectually protests his suburban domesticity by lusting after a minor and buying dope from a disturbed teenaged neighbor. Barely abiding also is Grady Tripp, Michael Douglas’s academic/novelist in Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys (2000). Tripp tries to break out of his funk by going on a silly quest with a gay protégé (Tobey Maguire) and a flirtatious co-ed (Katie Holmes). Neither of these countercultural relics accomplishes much, other than idling away the time getting stoned. And, sadly for them, that practice no longer even had the cachet of being subversive.
While the codgers puffed their pipes and reminisced, a new generation of stoners was taking shape. True, there were throwbacks to the morons of the past in films like Road Trip (2000) and Dude, Where’s My Car (2000). But with Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1994), a wise-ass savviness complemented the typical stoner sloth and puerility. Maybe the turning point in the genre came with Bob (“Everybody must get stoned”) Dylan’s son Jesse’s debut feature How High (2001). The plot follows the above mentioned Stoner Film Template pretty closely. Two bud smokers (played by rappers Method Man and Redman) engage in a silly quest (they try to get into, and then try to graduate from, Harvard), opposed by an uptight authority figure (the African-American dean), all ending in a conflagration in which everyone gets stoned.