Showtime has made a colorful, high-energy diversion from legit tuner “Reefer Madness,” which in turn was based on the 1936 camp-classic film a million college kids lit up to in the ’60s and ’70s. However, doing a remake of something that was ridiculous in the first place invariably leads to a trying-too-hard knowingness that comes out less funny than the original was (unintentionally). Still, this infectious, quite elaborate musical production will probably shine best on the small screen — in part because it’s shot in HD and looks it. Hardtop track record for similar exercises (i.e. much-hyped B.O. disappointment “Hedwig”) hasn’t been encouraging.
B&W framing device has Alan Cumming as an alternately smooth/bullying huckster showing a film (“Tell Your Children,” original pic’s own initial title) to concerned parents in Smalltown, USA, circa 1936. Overblown titular opening number has Cumming warning the parents of the “unspeakable scourge … turning all our children into hooligans and whores” as incongruous zombies terrorize the gullible grown-ups’ imaginations.
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Color film-within-film illustrates tragic saga of 16-year-old Jimmy Harper (Christian Campbell), an all-American, extremely wholesome lad in puppy love with equally apple pie ingenue Mary Lane (Kristen Bell). Nervous about his “two left feet” when Mary enters an upcoming dance contest, Jimmy lets oily local operator Jack (Steven Weber) lure him to a decrepit manse for alleged dance lessons. There he meets Jack’s much-abused lady friend Mae (Ana Gasteyer), a former good girl long since led down the path to ruin. Also in residence are Amy Spanger’s tarty blonde Sally (“What a night! I was in more laps than a napkin!”) and wild-eyed, manic addict Ralph (John Kassir).
Most importantly, Jimmy gets introduced to Mary Jane, aka marijuana. One puff and he’s transported into a bisexual Polynesian disco-fantasy wonderland where barely clad chorines assume Busby Berkeley formations and the horned god Pan (Cumming again) gets … horny.
Overnight, Jimmy becomes a spastic, hallucinating slave to Lady M and is reduced to stealing from the church poor box, which occasions a nightclub-heaven (literally) production number wherein debonair hunk Jesus Christ (Robert Torti) tries to prod him back toward righteousness.
But Jimmy does not mend his ways until it’s too late, after he and stoned driver Sally accidentally kill a pedestrian. Loyal g.f. Mary trails him back to chez Mae, where she too is tricked into a first toke that unleashes hitherto unimagined sensual ferocity. More blood is spilt as those evil “gigglesticks” induce general paranoia, shame, violence — and even cannibalism. Survivors pledge to fight this scourge nationwide, in a flag-waving finale that somewhat overreaches in trying to metaphorize America’s current swing toward right-wing sanctimony.
The stage musical, a long-run Los Angeles hit but Off Broadway flop (it opened right after 9/11), has been much expanded physically in this version helmed by Andy Fickman, who also directed the stage incarnations. There are more real dancers onscreen than commonly seen these days, choreographed with a glitzy wink by Mary Ann Kellogg.
Kevin Murphy’s lyrics are often clever. So, to a lesser extent, is the dialogue in the screenplay he co-wrote with Dan Studney from their stage text. But latter’s score has no interest in parodying the era’s Tin Pan Alley conventions, leaning instead on serviceable but nondescript theatrical faux-rock. Cliched wailing guitars don’t help. Vocals are strong across the board.
Pic wisely retains legit production lead thesps, with Campbell’s gee-whiz hero a particularly welcome reprise. Among new cast names, Spanger is very funny as dim-bulb Sally, while “Saturday Night Live” vet Gasteyer almost steals the show with perfect timing and impressive pipes as fallen-woman-with-heart-of-gold Mae. Cumming’s imperious “lecturer” dons various guises in the film-within-film, but his arch commentary throughout flags material’s eagerness to keep nudging us in the ribs when a straightfaced approach might’ve let laughs breathe easier.
Other thesps are fine, albeit encouraged to go over-the-top and stay there. Neve Campbell shows up for a single dance number as a soda shop waitress.
Design and tech contribs are solid, though visual impact emerges a bit more garish than necessary in DV lensing.
For the record, original “Reefer Madness” — which bears resemblance to current entity only in character names and basic premise — was a B.O. nonstarter until exploitation maven Dwain Esper added some spicier footage in 1938. He later unsuccessfully sued the distributors who sold it as a wildly popular midnight movie to chortling potheads from the early ’70s onward.