By Gabe Toro | The Playlist September 20, 2013 at 10:00AM
Very few films about marijuana use are able to accurately capture that high, that blissful burst of pleasure that unites the primitive and enlightened sides of our identities. Often, they lean towards the former mindset as opposed to the latter, trafficking in dumb slapstick gags or jokes that play on altered perception. Like the comedy of cruelty, we’re never high with the people onscreen (unless we choose to be), we’re just watching a bunch of idiots being implicitly judged by a sober director who thinks it’s funny to observe a human being with suddenly-weakened motor and reasoning skills. Filmmakers have been able to piggyback off of simulating other drugs simply for the hostility and transgression of their appeal, but the grace of a good high has gone largely unexplored.
It’s unfortunate that weed is criminalized, while rampant, rude tech use is encouraged: Disney’s coming re-release of “The Little Mermaid” is apparently being set up to allow customers to peruse their iPads during the film. A much better and less commercially noxious idea would be to allow a smoking section during this weekend’s “Newlyweeds,” a touching weed comedy-drama that finally captures just what it’s like to put your lips to some sticky icky and breathe in a mental holiday no other experience can match. Director Shaka King has made a film of big laughs and big heart that makes one long for one long green detour without pandering to the pot-hawks who, unrelatedly, also like the lowest-common-denominator appeal of most pot films without realizing they’re being patronized.
“Newlyweeds” centers on one attractive Brooklyn couple living a modest married life, one where they complete their workdays in each others’ arms, sharing a blunt with the same ease in which they share affection. Gangly, handsome Lyle (Amari Cheatom) spends his days doing arguably more disreputable acts for a steady paycheck. With a fast-talking buddy by his side, Lyle tracks down New York citizens who have defaulted on payments of products purchased, entering low income houses and forcibly removing couches, refrigerators and other costly appliances. King avoids condescending to these real life tragedies by depicting them as tiny social comedies, with clients/victims so aware of their actions that they resort to spy-level subterfuge and exaggerated violence in order to evade the repo men. When Lyle takes a punch to the eye, his partner laughs not at the damage, but at an occupational hazard.
Meanwhile, flighty Nina (Trae Harris) has a much more flexible schedule, serving as an employee at a children’s museum where few realize her rapport with children isn’t due to an innate skill set, but a delayed immaturity. Harris, with her uneven teeth and bright eyes, is pretty like a cartoon, all jagged edges, broad emotions and vocal expansiveness, and her Nina manages to come off as wise when she begins adding fuel to Lyle’s sedentary career motivations, even if it’s only a brief distraction from curling up on the couch, lighting up and talking about half-formed dreams as if they could be tomorrow’s potential narrative. Nina’s warmth and Lyle’s steadfast masculinity make them an attractive couple. It’s dismaying when Nina smokes when Lyle’s out, just as it is to find out Lyle’s pocketing his own secret stash, because the two characters, and actors, are so delightful together.
Lyle and Nina are both functional potheads, but only barely so, and the ramshackle narrative reveals stresses at work that threaten this balance. Hustling for each paycheck, Lyle finds himself burning the candle at both ends, trying to satisfy his wife, his love of the bud, and his social life separate from his wife. It’s a division that proves impossible. Nina, meanwhile, strikes up a friendship with patronizing, globe-trotting co-worker Chico (Colman Domingo). There’s no mutual sexual attraction between Nina and Chico, only a common interest in weed. But Chico, a corduroy-clad world-traveler, is the type of irritant who thinks his life experiences make him a positive influence on absolutely every environment he enters. Under the auspices of friendliness, he thinks nothing of coming over while Lyle is away, and smoking all of the remaining hash. Domingo, who was recently seen in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” has that one-of-a-kind smile, a sneaky half-grin that implies both polite, insincere friendliness and amused insouciance. If he smoked your weed too, you’d be compelled to make sure you never saw that smile again.
Casual marijuana use is common in such a large percentage of contemporary films, but none show just exactly what happens when the pot runs out. “Newlyweeds” illustrates that when supplies run low and tensions grow, even the most cosmopolitan of smokers will find themselves in idiotic dire straits. The kids in, say, “The Bling Ring” might be rolling their own joints thanks to a friendly Hollywood Hills delivery, but more often than not the reality of marijuana use involves wandering to and fro on empty city streets at untold hours of the morning. This reality in King’s film comes equipped with its own comedy, as Lyle soon finds himself shoulder-to-shoulder with the marginalized citizens he’s re-borrowed from. “Newlyweeds” makes an uneasy transition to a more serious third act, one that teeters towards preachy in its condemnation of drug use without moderation. Here, the lines fray between Lyle and Nina, in what remains the most compelling element of a vibrant film that has suddenly gone solemn and spartan.
Cheatom and Harris share a convincing chemistry that makes this segue worthwhile. King’s film doesn’t quite stick the landing at points: it’s polished for a first film, but often King can’t resist going for an easy laugh or manufacturing a cheap dream sequence, as if he doesn’t necessarily trust the sharp instincts of his two leads. But King otherwise casts the film well, allowing for standout appearances from the likes of Isiah Whitlock Jr. as a grabby prison inmate and the ubiquitous Adrian Martinez as a local drunk attempting and failing to convey helplessness. His character seems more of a product of the atmosphere: King, a Brooklyn native, shoots the borough in a way that creates a strong sense of community, providing the seeds of this film a garden from which to blossom. “Newlyweeds” is a sharp, exciting debut from a filmmaker who knows how to romanticize the ineffable, creating a believable love triangle between Lyle, Nina and weed. You’d just as much want to see his next movie as you’d want to light up with him. [B+]