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Cheech and Chong's Up In Smoke

Paramount // R // September 4, 2007
List Price: $14.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Phil Bacharach | posted September 9, 2007 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

In the annals of immortal comedy teams, the pairing of Pedro "Cheech" Marin and Tommy Chong might not rise to the level of, say, Abbott and Costello, but none were better when it came to dope-addled comedy. Ascending to stardom on a cloud of pot smoke in the early Seventies, Cheech and Chong's shtick as stoner hippies filled a niche in a rock 'n' roll drug subculture ripe with comic possibilities.

Still, their allure was more than just the "look, we get high, too" variety -- although there was certainly some of that. Their drug-fueled humor came from a knowing place, sure, but their routines were imbued with a broadness that could appeal to even the biggest squares. Whatever the secret to Cheech and Chong's success, it worked, and in 1978 they parlayed it into movies with Up in Smoke for Paramount Pictures.

Classical filmmaking, it ain't. Up in Smoke is often clumsily staged and sluggishly paced, perhaps not surprising given that director Lou Adler, who had produced Cheech and Chong's comedy records, was no born moviemaker. And yet the picture is immensely likable nonsense that elicits laughs without relying on bong hits to soften up the audience. The flick was a huge hit. Shot over 30 days on a paltry $1.4 million budget, it ended up raking in more than $100 million. The year of its theatrical release proved to be a banner period for cinematic slobs; Up in Smoke and National Lampoon's Animal House combined to account for more than 20 percent of Hollywood's movie profits in 1978.

The story is rolling-paper-thin, really nothing more than a pretext for a gaggle of Cheech and Chong routines in which they toke it up and inadvertently stick it to Sgt. Stedenko (a wonderfully simmering Stacy Keach), a zealous narcotics agent hot on their trail. The film comes relatively close to flirting with plot when our lovable stoners wind up in Tijuana driving a van constructed entirely of chemically treated marijuana ("fiberweed," they call it) that Stedenko and his bumbling minions mean to interdict.

The movie is at its most gloriously dopey when it limits itself simply to car chatter between antiheroes Pedro DePacas (Marin) and the obliquely named "Man" Stoner (Chong). Chong pulls out a joint the size of a miniature dirigible. He explains that it includes a fair amount of Labrador; his dog ate his stash and so Chong followed the befuddled pooch around for three days with small baggies in order to retrieve it. No matter. The canine cannabis is potent enough for Cheech to muse, "I wonder what Great Dane tastes like." There are a few memorable bits featuring other performers -- especially Tom Skerritt as a haunted Vietnam vet and June Fairchild as a woman who mistakes Ajax for cocaine -- but the flick thoroughly belongs to its two leads.

Alas, Up in Smoke eventually loses its buzz once Cheech and Chong end up in that fiberweed van. Who needs plot? The film's shambling charm counts for a lot, but it doesn't entirely acquit how uneven, undisciplined and downright sloppy much of the movie is. A climactic battle of punk rock bands drags on for too long, while a number of sight gags are so incompetently staged as to be useless. And there is a threshold for jokes about being stupid and stoned.


The Video:

As is the case with Up in Smoke's previous incarnation on DVD, this "special collector's edition" is presented in anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1. The picture quality is top-notch, with sharp lines and strong colors.

The Audio:

Viewers can select Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround or a 2.0 mix, both of which are crisp and clear. A French audio track is available, with subtitles available in English and French.


The bonus materials on this 30th anniversary "collector's edition" are mildly interesting, but probably not worth a double dip. Only two new extras are worthwhile. The first, Lighting It Up: A Look Back at Up in Smoke (11:08), boasts interviews with Cheech, Chong and Adler to outline the history of the comedy duo. There are some funny anecdotes, but it's a far cry from must-have.

For Cheech & Chong fans, there is "Earache My Eye" Featuring Alice Bowie (5:41), an animated music video of the pair's celebrated 1974 novelty song/comedy sketch. Good stuff.

Cheech & Chong's "The Man Song" is two minutes and 29 seconds of quasi-amusing silliness, stringing together every use of the word "man" in Up in Smoke.

The best bonus material is carried over from the 2000 DVD. A commentary with Adler and Cheech is great fun, but not particularly informative. There are a few bits here and there -- the Volkswagen Beetle that Chong drives in the film belonged to Jack Nicholson, for instance -- but most of the entertainment comes from hearing Adler and Cheech giggle as they watch the movie. Brace yourself for some lengthy stretches of dead air.

Another holdover from the earlier DVD, "Roach Clips," includes eight deleted scenes with an aggregate running time of 11 minutes, 25 seconds. Viewers can watch each scene separately or use the "play all" function; commentary from Adler and Marin is optional. It's a kick to discover that scenes with Harry Dean Stanton, as a drug-pushing jailer, were left on the cutting-room floor.

Other extras include two vintage radio spots, a theatrical trailer and a preview of Blades of Glory.

Final Thoughts:

As someone who thoroughly enjoyed Up in Smoke during a misbegotten youth, I didn't have great expectations that the flick would hold up particularly well. I am pleased to report my concerns were mostly unfounded. Cheech and Chong's big-screen debut is a messy, slapdash affair, but it's good-natured and occasionally uproarious, and it now works as a sort of time capsule to a period of Americana we are not likely to see again.

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