The new marijuana documentary, “Rolling Papers,” tells the story of Denver Post’s Ricardo Baca, a journalist who landed the first ever job as marijuana editor, and started “The Cannabist” column. When the first legal marijuana stores opened in January 2014, Colorado got global media attention as not only the first place in America, but the first place in the world, to constitutionalize the recreational use of the drug for adults 21 years of age. Smoking weed was finally as legit as drinking alcohol, and the newspaper jumped on the opportunity to cover the rapidly expanding culture of cannabis. Directed by Colorado native Mitch Dickman, the documentary struggles to remain relevant throughout its short run time, and wobbles between glorification and reflection until it completely tilts over.
Part of the trouble is that it’s not sure about whether it tells Ricardo’s story or simply follows him around during the somewhat uneventful beginnings of “The Cannabist.” For one thing, our insight into Ricardo begins and ends with his job, without as much as a crumb to point us towards some kind of understanding of the man behind the editor. Why does a ganja doc need to cozy up to a journalist? Because, contrary to what many people will most likely believe before stepping into the theatre, “Rolling Papers” isn’t really about marijuana. For all its swerves and swivels, the documentary ends up being about the novelty of pot journalism, with the emotional undercurrent generated by the volatile profession of journalism itself (rolling papers, get it?!)
In order for that to truly work, however, a human connection needs to be there. Instead, what we’re left with is that Ricardo used to cover music, which made him the perfect candidate to lead the new column. Scenes that see him build a team of pot critics, work with other Denver Post reporters, and unexpectedly collaborate with Whoopi Goldberg, are all fragments of what could have been an enthralling documentary, if only the subject they all covered felt more significant. At least the idiosyncrasies of these background reporters gives “Rolling Papers” a lighthearted nature, and makes the doc an easy watch. Pot critics like Jake Browne, who used to be a “budtender,” and investigative journalist Eric Gorski, who loves “the hunt,” are the real stars of this documentary. Watching Browne fit in, and Gorski stick out in cannabis circles, is the recipe for a whole other, notably more entertaining, kind of documentary.
Everything falls apart with Dickman’s insistence of putting the various ganja strains on a pedestal. Literally. Every time any someone name-drops a type of weed, there’s a brief “title sequence” with the featured bud on a feathered pedestal looking like something from the cutting room floor of the “The Dave Chappelle Show.” Do it once, and you’ll get a chuckle. Do it every single time, and you’ve just rendered a serious documentary about pot journalism, already struggling to prove its own relevancy, a dreadfully off-kilter affair. The most egregious example is when one of the pot critics follows up on a lead to find out how marijuana helped a cancer-stricken child. The boy’s mom is in the middle of explaining the torment of doctor’s offices and the hopelessness of their situation, and says she started feeding him hemp oil with high doses of THC. She mentions the name of the strain, and boom, “Charlotte’s Web” gets its 5-second spotlight on the purple pedestal over some abrasive music. It’s a bizarre distraction that happens way too many times, and pulls the rug under any remotely serious subject “Rolling Papers” covers, such as: effects of pot on parenthood, the dangers of misleading THC levels, and what the U.S. can learn from the Uruguayan model of a legalized marijuana trade.
“Are you high right now?” is an amusing, but ultimately pointless, question that becomes something of a motif in Dickman’s documentary. He’ll most likely get sick of getting asked that very same question on the press tour, but it’s the only way one can explain the garish tonal shifts, and exceedingly bland patches, in “Rolling Papers.” While the recreational use of marijuana is getting more and more accepted, the negative side effects of the drug (depression, overeating, psychotic paranoia, etc.) are very real, but Dickman stays away from that side of the fence, choosing instead to deify pot-smoking with a stoner’s sensibilities. At one point, an employee of Dr. J’s (Denver’s popular marijuana manufacturer), shares his disdain on how the drug is treated in the media and says, “I would give the media a C-. It seems they focus on the very small, very rare incidents. Sensationalism is what sells papers.” Dickman would’ve done well to pay attention to those incidents, as they’re part of the bigger picture the documentary is attempting to paint. But, maybe sensationalizing pot sells movies too. [C-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 SXSW Film Festival.