In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
Few things are inherently funnier than drug logic, with its pervasive paranoia and hedge-maze arguments. And that’s the problem, in a way—it’s so inherently funny that filmmakers tend to go for the easy, cheap laugh. From Cheech and Chong to Harold and Kumar, there’s a long tradition of dumb stoner humor, and while it’s produced a number of classic performances (Brad Pitt has arguably never been better than in his brief True Romance bit, and Anna Faris would have been Oscar-nominated for Smiley Face in a just world), there always seems to be something missing. An underlying sadness, perhaps. The second chapter of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, for example, is a long, rambling interior monologue from the perspective of a guy desperately awaiting the arrival of his dealer, and it captures drug-fueled pretzel thinking with a degree of obsessive precision that’s both hilarious and frightening. Not that every drug-related movie needs to be as fundamentally serious as that novel, which is about addiction in all its forms, but there’s a potential for truly inspired lunacy that precious few have yet achieved.
Ironically, one of the exceptions isn’t even a pot movie. Released in 1989 but set in 1971, Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, adapted from a then-unpublished novel by James Fogle, concerns the exploits of four junkies, led by Matt Dillon, who rob pharmacies and hospitals of whatever potent prescription meds they can find. I’m not nearly enough of a connoisseur to know how the effects of Dilaudid and Percocet differ from those of marijuana, and in any case, it’s not always clear what the film’s characters are on at a given moment, or how recently they scored. But it doesn’t matter. Whatever the source, they’re addled beyond belief while remaining recognizably human at all times. Just take a look at this superb scene, in which an impossibly young Heather Graham innocently asks if she and her boyfriend (James LeGros) can get a dog, inspiring a tirade from Dillon that represents drug logic at its most inventively deranged.
Now, the story of Panda the dog is pretty amusing on its own, culminating in the goofy sight of the little guy leading the cops to Dillon’s house, shot (though we don’t know it at first) through a glass pane in the front door. (That pullback to reveal Dillon observing their approach is the sort of expert visual humor you almost never see in, say, a Judd Apatow movie, which relies entirely on dialogue and actors.) And it makes perfect sense that after that fiasco, Dillon and his girlfriend, Kelly Lynch, aren’t eager to allow another pooch into their lives. But it takes a particular sort of fuzzy thinking to progress from a single unfortunate incident to the notion that the species involved is now That Which Must Not Be Named. I’ve spent over two decades quoting LeGros’ incredulous “Jesus, Bob. You never told us anything about…not mentioning dogs.” (To rub it in, the TV set immediately begins canine-related programming on every damn channel, back in the days when there were only a handful to choose from; this is more or less the same gag as Pee-wee Herman being tormented with bicycles of every size and shape after his gets stolen.)
LeGros then sensibly asks Dillon for a list of other forbidden topics of conversation, and instead gets a list of bizarre superstitions—a crash course on hex avoidance. The hat-on-the-bed stricture long predates this movie, and apparently derives from genuine concerns about head lice being transferred to the sheets. (Though it seems the admonition then ought not to be, “Never put a hat on a bed” but rather, “For chrissakes go have your skull exterminated.”) And I think I’d heard the one about not looking at the backside of a mirror before, too… but never phrased quite like this. Neither “looking at yourself backward” nor “looking at your inner self” makes a whole lot of sense, given that you’d just be staring at some nondescript backing, and yet that’s a marvel of rationality compared to the warning that doing so will “freeze into motion your future,” which I can never hear without thinking of the old-timer at the holdup in Raising Arizona: “Mean to say, if’n I freeze, I can’t rightly drop. And if’n I drop, I’m a-gonna be in motion.”
Still, I’d argue that the scene’s (and to some extent the film’s) secret weapon is Kelly Lynch, a fine actor who’s never really gotten her due—possibly on account of her, shall we say, iconic role in Road House. Watch this scene again and keep your eye on her every time Dillon says almost anything. Her repertoire of sad, knowing nods gives a hilariously fresh spin to the concept of testifying. This isn’t even especially drug-fueled. It’s just a very specific form of insecurity: the desire to broadcast to the room your foreknowledge of what’s being said, thereby aligning yourself with the speaker (in this case, the nominal gang’s nominal leader). Her massive eyeroll when Dillon simply says the word “hats” could be mistaken for overacting, but it’s the character who’s overacting, not Lynch. You can see the difference when she tells the Panda story—her sorrow at the memory of their dog being put to sleep is simple, direct, and affecting, an expert tonal gearshift that collides productively with the TV commercial.
And then there are the little touches, like the room’s production design. Drugstore Cowboy is a period piece, so we get an old Sylvania TV set and that groovy floral-patterned armchair in the foreground. But notice something else about this house: It’s clean. Granted, they’ve just moved in, but it’s still refreshing to see a movie about drug users—flat-out junkies, here—who don’t always inhabit a pigpen. The only item out of place is a bag of fries that’s spilled out onto a cabinet of some sort behind the groovy armchair, and it’s probably significant that Dillon moves into that armchair, giving us a good look at the mess just past his head, when Lynch starts talking about Panda. Symbolism! And yet he cleans it up right in the middle of his tirade, as if making an effort to contain the madness that’s about to spill out. Just as real-life drunks tend to over-enunciate because they’re afraid they may slur, real-life druggies are often more self-conscious than the clean and sober, which is precisely what fuels their tortured reasoning. Capturing that behavior may not be a laugh riot à la Pineapple Express or Half Baked, but what comedy is there, rooted in recognition, hits much closer to home.