Cheech & Chong – Up in Smoke: Worthy Classic, or Lowbrow Idiocy?

Drug-humor duo Cheech and Chong made their first foray into the movies with this late 70’s flick. Being as the movie seems to have been in permanent rotation on cable and video almost since its release, and is a cult classic, I thought I should check it out. I’ve seen bits and pieces of “Up in Smoke” over the years, but never sat down to watch the whole film.

A bit of disclosure, old Skintaster here doesn’t smoke weed, nor indulge in illegal drugs. My few experiences with various party favors never seemed to be much fun, so a lot of the drug culture that Cheech and Chong base their act on might be better received by someone that rolls with 420 several times a day. Still, one does not necessarily have to be a pirate to enjoy pirate movies, and I like drug based underground comics, so maybe I could find something to love about this film.

“Up in Smoke” concerns the adventures of drug-addled screw ups Pedro De Paca (Cheech), and Anthony “Man” Stoner (Chong). Stoner’s rich parents (who only look ten or fifteen years older than their “son”) threaten Anthony with military school if he doesn’t get a job by the end of the day. His Volkswagen Bug breaks down, and Pedro stops after confusing Anthony for a hitchhiking big-breasted woman, because he’s wearing unconvincing drag to get a ride.

They quickly discover a common bond in their pot habits, and so a friendship is born. I guess this film sort of serves as the pair’s origin story.

The plot ambles on from there. They almost go to jail, continually try to score weed during a citywide pot shortage, are pursued by Norbert the Narc stand-in Sargent Stedenko (Stacy Keach), and enter a battle of the bands at the end. Somewhere in there they encounter several weird druggie women, and are oblivious to the fact that they’re driving a van actually made out of marijuana.

The story is really just a framework for various set pieces to happen. There’s no serious plot development in “Up in Smoke,” It’s really just a set up for Cheech and Chong to do their thing.

So is it funny? It has its moments. I can see why this would probably be a lot more fun if one was in an “enhanced” state of mind though. Pretty much every humorous situation involves lowbrow drug or sex humor, about the kind of thing someone would expect to hear in Junior High. Nothing wrong with that necessarily, but it’s not sophisticated humor at all. There’s also occasional lapses into racial stereotyping that I have a feeling many people might not see the humor in. At one point an Asian news woman introduces herself as “Sayonara Sushi” or something equally dumb… I can’t remember… Just for a cheap joke. Now, I’m not super sensitive about that kind of thing, but it wasn’t very funny, and I think some more sensitive viewers might question who thought it was… Of course, sensitive viewers are probably not this film’s target audience anyway.

The movie most reminded me of “The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers” comix by Gilbert Shelton, although those are more funny. In fact, seeing this film, I was trying to figure out who comes out looking worse – The drug addled protagonists, or the uptight reactionary cops trying to bust them? It’s certainly a good reflection of why I can’t stand to be around burn out stoners for too long.

Curiously, this film had a few sexual situations, but never showed actual nudity, a strange bit of unexpected restraint for a late 70’s film about drugs and counter culture dropouts.

The battle of the bands scenes at the end were interesting. They were shot at “The Rainbow”, and look like the bands were real local punk and new wave acts from the time period. One of the more interesting things about “Up in Smoke” is all of the footage of late 1970’s Los Angeles; the film captures the look of that time and place well.

So does the film deserve its status as a cult classic? I guess it’s not a terrible way to spend an hour and a half. Cheech and Chong have a certain goofy charm that makes the dull parts, and there are quite a few, go by quick enough. I think it still gets a lot of its cred from the notoriety of those two guys more than anything that’s actually great about this film. There are definitely better drug and sex fables from the same time period.

All in all, I’d rate “Up in Smoke” at 6 giant joints out of 10. You could probably bump that number up a little if you’re a chronic pot smoker.

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