With 4/20 only a little more than a month away, SXSW kicked off an all-encompassing celebration of marijuana on Friday with the regional premiere of the Doug Benson doc “Super High Me” at the Paramount Theatre, shortly before other comedies about the herb made their premieres (officially: “Humboldt County”; unofficially: Jonathan Levine’s Sundance hit “The Wackness,” which played Saturday night as a secret screening). Part concert film culled from “Best Week Ever” regular Benson’s stand-up act and part social documentary about the ongoing battle in California between the feds and the newly created legalized “dispensaries,” which have been empowered by state law to sell medical marijuana, “Super High Me” sets its sights on being entertaining and informative and manages to do a little of both.
As Benson proves, it’s not difficult to procure a doctor’s note, and the film follows him as he detoxifies for 30 days from the substance before getting high for an entire month, inspired by Morgan Spurlock’s attack on the Big Mac, “Super Size Me.” On the surface, it would seem that the film is merely a vehicle for Benson’s aloof brand of comedy, which, only moments into the film, gets him recognized as High Times #2 favorite pot comic. But, like Spurlock’s seemingly self-serving doc, Benson’s 30-day binge becomes something much larger than the gimmick at its center. The comedian’s frequent trips to a doctor (who is merely high on life, providing an engaging dynamic) and director Michael Blieden’s capture of the public outcry that results from overzealous drug enforcement officers breaking into the marijuana stores that have cropped up since California passed its medical marijuana law make for an intriguing discourse about the health and social ramifications of legalizing the drug. (Still, the sight of Benson and Sarah Silverman sharing a toke while Dave Navarro strums his guitar in the background is a bit jarring to see on camera.)
At the post-screening Q & A, Benson was pleased that “Super High Me” worked for the audience as a concert film, saying thata lot of times, because the audience on screen laughs, the in-house audience won’t, which wasn’t a concern in Austin. Likewise, Morgan Spurlock won’t be filing suit for infringement, according to Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos, whose Red Envelope Entertainment produced “Super High Me.” He added that when he told Spurlock of the Benson film at Sundance, “[Spurlock] only wished he had seen it first.” Sarandos and Benson were joined on stage by editor Alexis Hanawalt, director Blieden and producer D.J. Paul, who probably inspired a few people in the audience to start making movies of their own when he said all the marijuana for the production was donated for free.
Although the second installment of the adventures of Harold and Kumar has a little more than just pot on its mind, the sequel to the instant stoner classic was the subject of a panel Saturday that featured actors John Cho, Kal Penn and Neil Patrick Harris, as well as writer/directors Hayden Schlossberg and Jon Hurwitz. While moderator Robert Wilonsky and the panel generally steered talk away from the films’ drug element, one Austinite couldn’t help himself during the Q & A portion and ask if Cho and Penn did any research before making the first film, to which Cho deadpanned, “We did a lot of blow and then I was told that was incorrect.” However, a beet red Harris was more surprised to learn that Penn actually had to research “Doogie Howser, M.D.” for Kumar’s obsession with the Steven Bochco series.
Despite the panel’s mostly light tone, with Cho going so far as to say, “I don’t think the movie has anything to say politically,” the social issues that have given weight to the “Harold and Kumar” comedies were also raised. Penn shared an anecdote about the TSA searching him frequently in airports during the first film’s press tour and how in one instance, his friend, who was in Penn’s words, “pinker,” was carrying a hunting knife on him after just getting back from a camping trip. “Racial profiling makes us all less safe,” said Penn, who also spoke of his first encounter with Schlossberg and Hurwitz at a mutual friend’s birthday party and being offended by Hurwitz when he said, “Wow, you don’t have an accent.” (Hurwitz countered, “We weren’t actor trained yet.”) But Penn and Cho reflected positively on what “Harold and Kumar” has done for their careers Cho said the film was his “calling card at this point” while Penn said he only got an audition for Mira Nair’s adaptation of “The Namesake” when Nair’s 14-year-old son (a “Harold and Kumar” fan) bugged his mom to audition him. And for those already awaiting a third “Harold and Kumar,” Schlossberg jokingly teased, “We’ve planned a 12-part dodecology. What you find out is [“Guantanamo Bay”] is chapter four and five.”
If there was one shortcoming of the panel, it was the lack of input from Harris, who not surprisingly had all the best lines. When asked whether he was reluctant to come back for a second film, Harris cracked, “I was excited to finally cash in on a sequel… and [Schlossberg and Hurwitz] told me Anthony Michael Hall was on the other line.” But he saved his best for last when Wilonsky walked right into a gag by cutting off questions by saying, “I see the guy in the back giving me the ‘hi’ sign,” leading Harris to do his best Beavis impersonation, giggling, “high sign.”
[Photo: “Super High Me,” Screen Media Films, 2008]