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‘Cheech & Chong’s Last Movie’ Review: The Legendary Stoner Duo Recount Meteoric Rise in Hit-or-Miss Archival Doc

Cheech and Chong persist in the popular culture mainly as a metonym for stoner humor, but as any comedy fan knows, even the dumbest jokes — the one’s that can only be enjoyed while baked — don’t just appear out of smoke-filled air. “Cheech & Chong’s Last Movie,” a new documentary chronicling the eponymous duo’s meteoric rise in the 1970s, emphasizes the sheer amount of work and determination it took to become one of America’s most popular comedy acts. Long before Seth Rogen was born, Cheech and Chong were the hardest-working potheads in Hollywood, even if they played exaggerated burnouts on screen and stage.

Alas, every success story comes with its fair share of complications. “Last Movie” also explores the financial headaches and managerial difficulties Cheech and Chong weathered at the height of their success, as well as the creative differences that ultimately drove the two men apart. Though the pair are currently on friendly terms, director David Bushell depicts how they still carry some resentments. Much like brothers, the two remember different versions of the same events, and depending on who’s telling the story, the other half is inevitably portrayed as the malefactor.

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Most importantly, “Last Movie” reunites Cheech Marin, age 77, and Tommy Chong, age 85, back together on screen. The film features sequences of the aging stoners driving together through the desert, and watching the two men riff together in a car will inevitably recall similar scenes of them as younger men in films like “Up in Smoke.” Bushell reportedly shot these scenes near Joshua Tree without a script, and though some are certainly improvised — like when Cheech and Tommy banter or argue — others are clearly staged, especially the one’s featuring “passengers” like their former producer Lou Adler and Tommy’s wife Shelby. Bushell’s combination of staged and improvised scenes not only falls in line with the history of non-fiction filmmaking (“Is this a doc or a movie?” Cheech asks. “I don’t know, man,” Chong replies), but also neatly reflects how the duo brought their recorded work to the big screen.

These driving scenes serve as interstitials for “Last Movie,” which primarily blends a familiar mixture of well-sourced archival footage, contemporary interviews, and animated sequences. The first third of the film depicts their different upbringings — Cheech grew up in California under the forceful hand of his police officer father and Tommy emerged from an impoverished childhood in Calgary — but also stresses similar experiences. Both men experienced racism and alienation in their youth within their respective communities. Both had fruitful careers prior to comedy: Cheech seemingly thrived as a potter after moving to Canada to evade the draft and Tommy attained minor success as a musician in the Canadian soul group Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers.

Though these early scenes have a plodding, standard biographical quality, complete with ho-hum animated sequences to flesh out stories absent from the archive, they also capture how both men developed different skills that would later be utilized in their act. Tommy’s musical background gave him an early glimpse into show biz life and confidence as a live performer, whereas Cheech was on the front lines of the counterculture as a politically active college student in the ’60s on the West Coast. The two also found their way into marijuana at similar times, albeit through radically different venues befitting their distinctive pasts. Cheech discovered the herb in college where he also crossed paths with Timothy Leary. Tommy, on the other hand, got high for the first time watching jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman play in a club.

“Last Movie” spends most of its runtime recounting in painstaking detail the entire Cheech and Chong history, from when they first found their footing performing at a strip club to their smash-hit comedy albums and eventually their move into feature films. Up through the mid-’80s when the two break up, the film hardly leaves any stone unturned, and there are times when “Last Movie” overestimates an audience’s interest in every single aspect of their story. Bushell heavily leans on the archive of which there’s plenty of material, some unearthed and some that’s readily available to peruse on YouTube. It’s nice to watch the two work out fresh material on stage as younger men, and it’s probably important to actually see the rock ‘n’ roll-sized crowds they drew at their peak, but not every TV interview provides fresh insight. Some of the footage feels redundant or unnecessary, particularly when “Last Movie” moves into the duo’s post-“Up in Smoke” filmography.

For a while, “Last Movie” languidly ambles through its and-then-this-happened structure, but just as it completely loses steam, it picks up when it focuses on the duo’s break-up, specifically how the two feel about it in the present day. Bushell films individual interviews with Cheech and Tommy that recur throughout the films, and though it provide a good foundation for their respective histories, watching the two relitigate arguments from decades prior as they drive together compels on its own merits. Tommy betrays plenty of egotism on his part when he insists he needed full creative control with every successive film and Cheech never quite got over being marginalized in the act. Even in their autumn years, they often can’t or won’t perceive how the other feels about certain events, and it’s telling the two never abandon their positions even when they agree to let it go.

The best parts of “Last Movie” lie in the film’s unde-rexplored margins, like how the fledgling days of improv comedy influenced the Cheech and Chong act, or how they had to adapt their stage show, which relied upon visually broad exaggeration, to the audio medium for their albums. (“Dave’s Not Here,” their most famous routine, is a primary example of the latter.) The film gestures towards the comedians’ feelings about mainstreaming and profiting from the counterculture (the two repeatedly say they’re proud capitalists), but it’s obvious why “Last Movie” never exactly examines or critiques their positions. The film prefers to operate purely as a trip down nostalgia lane.

Any serious comedy fan will probably get something from “Last Movie” even as it overstays its welcome. It’s refreshing that the film never tries to force Cheech and Chong’s comedy to transcend its historical period. At one point in the film, an interviewer asks whether the two comics would have an act if they took away the four-letter word and the drugs, to which he replies, “If you took away the four-letter word and the drugs, you wouldn’t have the youth.” Even though “Last Movie” spends two hours explaining the pair’s rise to cultural prominence, there’s nary a better explanation for it than that eloquent retort.

Grade: B-

“Cheech & Chong’s Last Movie” premiered at SXSW 2024. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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