Studies show that smoking Judge Kerry Birmingham creates a less effective "buzz" than snorting, ingesting, or injecting him.
"I, for one, would like to hear what the blood-spattered young lady has to say."
Reefer Madness, the 1936 anti-marijuana propaganda film that later mutated into an unintentionally hilarious touchstone for savvy stoners, skirted the line of self-parody so closely that it doesn't seem a natural candidate for a musical. Let's be honest: it didn't skirt the line, it jumped directly over it, convinced that jumping over that line was the morally upright and socially conscious thing to do. The original film derived its humor from its deadpan assertions that marijuana led to a degradation of the very building blocks of America—nay, humanity itself, proffered by unscrupulous gangsters and with the ability to turn any man into a slavering, maniacal lunatic (as opposed to just turning them into those annoying guys you knew in high school.) Amplify the more absurd aspects and do them up with the natural bombast of musical numbers, and suddenly turning the cult classic into a musical seems like an idea that should have come earlier. Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical, based on previous New York and Los Angeles stage productions, happily exploits the original's skewed world view and, like the reefer itself, individual results may vary.
Facts of the Case
A stern lecturer (Alan Cumming, X2: X-Men United) rolls into the Quintessential American Town with a story to tell the community's concerned parents. He tells them the tragic tale of Jimmy Harper (Christian Campbell, The Book of Daniel), an ordinary teenager who wants nothing more than to go to the school dance with his sweetheart, the angelic Mary Lane (Kristen Bell, Veronica Mars). Poor Jimmy is waylaid, however, by a pair of nefarious dope peddlers (Steven Weber, Wings and Ana Gasteyer, Mean Girls) who are looking to recruit foolish teenagers to corrupt in their den of marijuana and unprotected group sex. Jimmy takes to the wacky weed instantly, and begins a terrible descent into addiction that includes, but is not limited to, theft, promiscuity, murder, and cannibalism. With musical numbers.
Musicals typically aren't up my alley (unless it involves the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer singing), but there's an undeniable enthusiasm here that's hard to ignore. The movie has "labor of love" written all over it, and beneath the veneer of camp is the clear indication that all involved had a great deal of love and affection for the material. Bell and Campbell, returning to the roles they played in previous stage productions, have their deliveries down to every calculated gesture, and virtually everyone in the cast plays their part to the hilt. Gasteyer and Weber commit to their roles, as conflicted battered wife and amoral hoodlum, respectively, with cheesy gusto. Mention should also be made of Amy Spanger (Six Feet Under), bringing the slapstick as the drug dealers' resident pot-addled temptress, and Jon Kassir, TV's Cryptkeeper himself, as Ralph, the piano player, who cackles his way through the character and image most often associated with the original film. Bell, however, is the film's highlight. She is, frankly, adorable, and mixes crack comic timing with an excellent singing voice. Anyone harboring a crush on Veronica Mars will find no cure here. It's a fantastic ensemble, and goes a long way towards selling the audience on the movie's irreverent premise.
Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical smartly creates the bulk of its humor by satirizing the satire; the movie doesn't kowtow to the Cheech & Chong sensibilities of the High Times set, but instead riffs off of the stodgy ideology of 1930s America as presented in the original film. The theme is fear, be it of Communism or marijuana or that insidious, insidious jazz all the kids love (all these and more get the film's blunt satirical treatment). It's played broad, but only rarely becomes too pointed ("When danger's near/exploit their fear," intones Cumming's narrator to the strains of "America the Beautiful"). The humor careens from wordplay to social commentary to farce with little or no warning, and those receptive to it will find the humor at least as entertaining as the musical numbers. Casual viewers may balk at the movie; it contains the most on-screen dismemberment this side of Sin City and the most zombie attacks this side of Land of the Dead. Nothing is sacred here. If the sight of our protagonist, animated and in silhouette, having sex with a brownie is a deterrent for you, then you certainly won't be able to handle Jesus's gold lame loin cloth. Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical makes no apologies for the breadth of its offensiveness for the sake of humor.
Strangely, the movie is strongest when it sticks closer to the plot of the 1936 film. The best humor is gleaned from the niches of the original film: Mary and Jimmy singing cluelessly about the assumed happy ending of Romeo and Juliet nicely exaggerates the cornball study date from the original. The farther away the film goes from direct parody, the more it loses its cleverness and the tacit acceptance of the audience. By the time Ralph is making out with a severed head, it seems over the top and inappropriate, this despite the fact that we have already sat through a movie that has featured Jesus in a Vegas-style lounge act and an otherwise heartfelt ballad that prominently uses the word "rape" for comic purposes (I wasn't kidding about the breadth of offensiveness).
Assuming at least some viewers are there for the music and not the promise of marijuana-based commentary, the musical numbers in themselves are enjoyable. Jesus's Tom Jones-esque performance of "Listen to Jesus, Jimmy" is a personal favorite, as is the white-people-sing-gospel number "Mary Jane/Mary Lane" and "Lonely Pew" (the Jesus segments are my favorite, it's true). Staged with all the pizzazz a reasonably budgeted made-for-cable movie has to muster, the movie keeps things lively and moving along, from a soda shop tango to Busby Berkeley-inspired demons to singing clams (yes, clams) and a two-stepping Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the choreography can accurately be called unpredictable, and well in the spirit of the film (I mentioned the brownie sex, right?)
Sound and picture quality are virtually flawless, as it should be on a movie this recent, especially one where the music mix is so important. The feature commentary, by director Andy Fickman, writers/producers Dan Studney and Kevin Murphy (no relation to the Kevin Murphy of Mystery Science Theater 3000 fame), and several cast members, has the air of old friends catching up, and the general vibe of the chumminess of shared experience. Lively and informative, the commentary is just as raucous as the film itself. The "Grass Roots" featurette is typical promo fluff, and the photo gallery and cast biographies are almost as perfunctory. The original 1936 feature is included here, in a heavily degraded form, but it hardly matters, as the movie is awful no matter its presentation. Its inclusion here is welcome, and, at just over an hour long, is worth watching beforehand for context for the musical, though it's by no means necessary. A slew of trailers for other Showtime original programming (somewhat tellingly, most are for Showtime's marketing department of gay- and lesbian-themed releases) round out the extras.
If this hasn't been made clear by now, Reefer Madness is not a movie for everyone, though it will likely enjoy a long life in the DVD players of sick musical theater enthusiasts and those with comedy palettes beyond offense. Or possibly the large contingent of man-on-brownie sex enthusiasts out there. Deviants, the lot of you.
Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical is free to go on the condition that it keeps cannibalism- and cannabis-themed musical numbers out of this court and in the schools where they belong.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Showtime Entertainment
• Original 1936 Reefer Madness
Review content copyright © 2006 Kerry Birmingham; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.