`Reefer Madness' has some highs

The musical numbers are fun, but the movie's plot goes nowhere

TV Preview

April 16, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Showtime's Reefer Madness is a made-for-TV movie version of a Broadway play about a film that became a camp classic almost from the time of its debut in the 1930s.

Got that? TV movies about movies, plays about previous plays - that's pop culture today mired in a postmodern funk, cannibalizing works of Hollywood Past over and over in a seemingly endless loop that gets less and less rewarding with each turn. And everything is wrapped in irony and a smug superiority to generations past.

The original Reefer Madness was a work of hysteria warning parents of the evil ways in which marijuana could ruin their children's lives. It was so over-the-top that even in that decade, few took it seriously.

By the 1960s, it was a high-camp staple on college campuses, with students showing up, toking up, hooting at the screen and shouting dialogue.

So, what's the point today? That's what theatergoers seemed to be asking when Reefer Madness: The Musical opened on Broadway just after 9/11 and quickly flopped.

Showtime's adaptation (premiering tonight at 8) opens in Smalltown, America, circa 1936, with a character called The Lecturer (Alan Cumming) presenting a film on the dangers of marijuana: "a violent narcotic, an unspeakable scourge, the real Public Enemy No. 1."

Reefer Madness tells the story of Jimmy Harper (Christian Campbell) and Mary Lane (Kristen Bell), a couple of 16-year-old high school sweethearts - good kids headed for heartache and possibly ruin when a drug dealer, Jack Stone (Steven Weber), lures Jimmy to his reefer den and introduces the schoolboy to the drug. It is all done in a near-cartoon style of high parody with Stone looking like John Waters in a fedora.

Several of the musical numbers are hepcat, jump-street fun to witness, there is no denying that - especially those that showcase Bell, the star of UPN's Veronica Mars, or Neve Campbell, who plays the high-stepping owner of the local ice cream parlor where the teens gather.

But while the high spirits and syncopated struts are a temporary joy to behold, ultimately they go nowhere. Without narrative and emotional climax, Reefer Madness is more cabaret than musical play - an emotionally empty production so in love with its image in the postmodern mirror that it forgets there is an audience with which it is supposed to connect.

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