A second review requested by K. Rice, with thanks for contributing twice to the ACS Fundraiser.

The 1936 propaganda film Tell Your Children, known far better under its re-release title Reefer Madness, is almost too easy to take cheap shots at. It's the most infamous of the peculiarly robust cycle of anti-drug films in the '30s, and its exaggerated horror at all of the nightmarish things that happen to people who smoke marijuana cigarettes - they become cannibals, they sell their babies, they have premarital sex - is so hysterical and divorced from reality that the end result is among the ripest camp films in history. It's also deeply cynical, playing the trick that was also peculiarly robust in those days, of looking up with a martyred, aggrieved face at the Right-Thinking People to simper about how it's an important public service announcement that simply must go beyond the pale in depicting the wretchedness of the ruined lives it takes as its topic. And heck, if that means showcasing sex and violence and in some cases nudity (not this one) to levels that were 100% not okay by the standards of the day, well that's what had to happen in favor of telling the truth. And of course you had to market it as an extreme showcase for sex and violence - the audience might get too freaked otherwise. But it's certainly not a crass exploitation film, no sir. Come on, don't you want to stop the spread of the demon weed?

On top of which, it's pretty shabbily made, so the film has enjoyed a reputation for decades as one the most overwrought, hilariously awful movies out there (I don't have the data to back this up, but it's always been my sense that it was in fact the first movie to be widely appreciated on a "so bad it's good" basis). All of which brings me back to my point: this movie is much, much too easy a target. And yet, when writers Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney took dead aim at the film with their 1998 play Reefer Madness: The Musical, they managed to make those cheap jokes land with flair and energy, enough to make their tossed-off gag of a show into a huge hit that eventually went to New York where its off-Broadway run in 2001 was another hit, and paved the way for a movie adaptation. Revised by Murphy and Studney, sharing director Andy Fickman with the original two productions, and featuring several of the established stage performers in the cast, Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical debuted on Showtime in April, 2005, capturing the latest version of the show (with a new song) for all posterity, and nailing down a terrific cast to do it with.

It's compulsively charming, making a good argument for the spry appeal of the stage show (which I have not seen) but also putting in enough irreducibly cinematic touches that doesn't come across as a filmed play. It has some jarring problems, and I'll get to those in due course, but mainly, it's a breezy lark: the leering, heavy-handed parody is lightened significantly by the sugary confection of the songs, which come by often: 16 numbers in the 101 minutes that the film runs without credits. It is, all things considered, a pretty close remake of Tell Your Children: a traveling lecturer (Alan Cumming) arrives in a small Everytown in the U.S. of A., where he invites parents and teachers to watch the film's bringing along to demonstrate how wicked dope fiends could become, no matter how innocent where were to start. With frequent cutaways to show the audience's repulsed responses, or the bafflement of one less-than-concerned adult who's certain that the lecturer is trying to put one on ever everybody, this movie-in-the-movie is the great majority of Reefer Madness: The Musical Movie, and it's basically the same dread tale as the movie-in-the-movie in '36.

Somewhere in another Everytown (in '36, it was the same one as the city where the frame narrative takes place), there lives a swell kid named Jimmy Harper (Christian Campbell), fresh-faced and 16, and just about ready to ask his best girl Mary Lane (Kristen Bell) to wear his class ring. The trouble starts when they and all the other kids head to the five and dime to dance swing and drink soda fountain drinks made by the bubbly Miss Poppy (Neve Campbell, Christian's sister; though of course she's a hell of a lot more of a name than he is). This is already a touch sinful, we are assured, but Jimmy's so clean-cut and square that he doesn't even know how to swing. Along comes local dope pusher Jack Stone (Steven Weber) to seduce the boy with promises of dancing lessons; what Jack actually has in mind, once he gets Jimmy back to his wretched flophouse, where he lives in sin with Mae Coleman (Ana Gasteyer), and the crazed junkies Sally DeBains (Amy Spanger) and Ralph Wiley (John Kassir) are always hanging around being wretches is to force the boy to smoke a joint. And thus having hooked the boy with the most addictive and dangerous of all illicit drugs, Jack can sit back and gloat as his new customer ruins his life and, increasingly, the lives of all around him.

There are two general problems with the film. Three, perhaps, if we count the lame direction, in which Fickman simply props up the camera and points it at stuff, recording the action with the same clabberhanded grace that he'd later show off in timeless classics like You Again and Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2. Thank God for Mary Ann Kellogg's choreography, is what I'm saying, because that's just about the only time that the onscreen action is meaningfully interesting to look at. But this is a broad parody of a shitty quickie from the '30s, and even as I doubt it's intentional, the argument is easy to make that the primitive visual style works to the film's advantage. So let's not count it, and go back to just the two problems.

One of these is that that film is simply too damn proud of itself; for every moment that's a lacerating dart of satiric wisdom about panic-mongering and ultra-reactionary impulses, there's another that plays like a loudmouthed drunk screaming at you in what he thinks is a conspiratorial tone: isn't it fucking wonderful how much more sophisticated we are than 1930s conservatives? And more often than not, this boastful self-satisfaction is accompanied by Cumming's unusually off-key mugging for the back rows in TV-scale close-ups. That's all the film's prerogative, of course, and I agree with the greater points it's making, but that much sardonic winking starts to suck the wit out of the jokes.

The other problem, which actually bothers me more, is that the material is a stewpot of anachronisms: most of the time, it hits the '30s pretty closely, particularly with the music. The nauseatingly cute romantic duet "Romeo and Juliet", Mary's earnest prayer of double entendres "Lonely Pew", and the rousing folksy showstopper "Tell 'Em the Truth" are all 100% on-point, and most of the other numbers are close enough to fake the odd bar or harmony that's not quite right. Some of the time, though, it seems like the filmmakers were only gunning to get something that fits the general 1933-1959 window: oftener in Maya Mani's costume designs than anything else, but the dialogue is ribboned with lines whose particular anti-Communist rhetoric certainly feels more like the post-WWII Red Scare than the more muted wariness of the Soviet Union in America in the '30s. And while nearly all of the humor in the film comes in the form of exaggeration of the "gee whiz!" ethos and inadvertent filthiness, a few incidental moments are jarringly modern in their sarcasm and irony.

Both of these problems, I would point out, are matters of individual moments that are a little clamorous and off-putting; they stand out only because the film in general is such giddy fun. The songs are maddeningly catchy, with line after line of showy wordplay; it's not one of the great masterworks of musical theater or anything like that, but it's intoxicating as a collection of well worked-out verbal and musical gags. And it's all delivered with unyielding commitment by a terrific cast: everybody is playing a pretty broad concept, but they're all doing it without hesitation or shame. Much of the film is wild absurdity, more and more as it goes on, and the tether to some kind of character reality that the actors provide keeps it funny and not just ludicrous.

Deliberate camp is a hard game to play well, and Reefer Madness makes it look easy: no, it's not consistent, but it's never more than a couple of minutes from some inspired piece of snarky idiocy that brings it back up, and at the very least, Bell and Gasteyer don't put a single foot wrong at any point. It's energetic, it mixes silliness and meanness well, and it threads the impossible needle of being deliberately bad in a way that's appealing and funny instead of just shrill. Nothing can top the manic ineptitude of the original, of course, but this succeeds in being distinctive enough that its strengths are its own without any reflected glory from a legendary forebear.