Bongwater (1998)

“You’re confused because you’re lost… and you’re lost because you don’t know where you are!”

Kyle’s Rating: If you’re not ready for typically Kyle-centric rampant egomania, turn back now, please!

Kyle’s Review: For some reason, and I’m blaming the lunar cycle and the influence of actual space aliens, I personally have been stuck in some kind of perpetual cycle of narcissism and socially awkward self-centeredness. Maybe it’s my quarterlife crisis; maybe it’s a weird brain tumor. If it were the latter, naturally I’d be quite bummed (to say the least) but at least I would have the brief yet exciting “telekinetic” phase to look forward to. Who says there isn’t an upside to everything?

I decided that rather than deny my self-aggrandizing urges by fasting and the use of a cilice, I would embrace the “me.” I would embrace the strange and wondrous world of sensory fulfillment that accompanies a total emersion into the self; viewing all things and contemplating all thoughts with me as the new morning star in the universe. When you make yourself most high, even locally there are wrinkles that occur in time and space, and it’s worth a weekend’s jaunt into a room without doors to consider the mind-boggling implications.

But all this is neither here nor there. The film Bongwater is what is being discussed, and per usual in a Kyle review, the following proclamation must be made: this film is so close to my life, it’s scary.

Now, I understand the heavy sigh that escaped you when you read and processed that last sentence. “Oh, great, another movie that is somehow a cinematic interpretation of Kyle’s life. Just like Batman and Almost Famous and Old School and blah blah blah… just tell us if the damn movie is worth a rental fee and make some joke about living in California and let us get on with our day, Kyle!” Look, I’m sorry. I write from the heart, hush hush voices carry, and if I have to crawl upon the floor, come crashing through your door, baby, I can’t fight this feeling anymore. Can you dig it?

I just ducked a whole lot of discussion through the simple art of lyrical diversion. It works in real life, too. True! Simultaneously, I do have to dodge one big bullet that comes with placing myself in the shoes of Luke Wilson’s character in Bongwater: I can honestly say that I have never dealt drugs in my life, nor do I intend. I can’t say too much else on the subject. But I can say that.

Actually, I should mention something important at this point: Bongwater is fairly unwatchable. Drug use and the sale of drugs compromise more than 50% of the plot as you might guess (see: the film’s title), and while Wilson is just a likeable guy no matter what, the role his character David is still a drug-addled would-be artist who is pretty screwed up, though quite amiable. There’s a sexual assault, characters do horrible (though completely realistic) things to each other, and the emotional train wrecks of relationships that populate the film are so forehead-slappingly frustrating, that the overall effect of Bongwater is nothing at all like actual bongwater.

But, man oh man, is Bongwater close to my life. Terrifyingly close. I wonder if Bongwater is virtually unwatchable for me because, whereas the first time I watched it I was spellbound at how easy it was to say “that’s *****” or “that’s ***” or “oh my god that’s *******!”, subsequent viewings have proven that recognition factor to be quite painful on the existential plane. Close friends who have borrowed my taped copy always return it and, without any prompting, immediately launch into some version of “Did you sell your story to somebody like Kramer sold his to Mr. Peterman or what?” The Seinfeld reference is highly variable; usually they just say “That’s you, dude!” or something to that effect. I’m sure you’re quite interested.

Anyway, I’m therefore able to recommend Bongwater from the unique perspective of near-total empathy with its narrative. And I have to say: if you haven’t dabbled in the world of drugs (especially marijuana), and/or you don’t have any friends who dabbled in the world of drugs, and especially if you have no patience for people who do rely on a little (or a lot of) herbal stimulation to make it through the day, this isn’t a film you’re going to enjoy very much.

It probably sounds like a blast: a vaguely indie flick starring the likes of Wilson and Alicia Witt, with a supporting cast rounded out by Andy Dick, Jeremy Sisto, Brittany Murphy, Jamie Kennedy, Amy Locane, Scott Caan, and Jack Black. How could a cast like that not elevate a film to the upper echelons of cult success, if not mainstream greatness? Well, even when the cast nails their parts perfectly, it doesn’t help when the subject matter is going to turn off a lot of “squares” (amiable pothead David [Wilson] sells acres of pot and falls in love with pretentious emotional terrorist Serena [Witt] as houses burn down and general pot smoking ensues in and around Portland) and when the tone of the film itself veers from gentle stoner humor (think the pot interlude in PCU stretched out to around 97 minutes) to mean-spirited viciousness (when cocaine and rape impact briefly yet violently into the story). Truly, it’s like I said: if the drug world doesn’t interest you except as a cause to fight against, continue avoiding Bongwater. You won’t laugh, and your arms will hurt from being tightly crossed in condemnation for an hour and a half.

Even if you can enjoy drug humor, it’s difficult to say whether or not Bongwater is “ha ha” funny. Just as the 80’s fringe film Liquid Sky is said to be “by heroin addicts, about heroin addicts, for heroin addicts,” Bongwater is undoubtedly by pot smokers, about the pot smoking scene, for the amusement of pot smokers. The film doesn’t pull its punches about the quicksand existence that life with pot appears to be from the outside (and from the inside as well), but the main thrust of its humor is derived from the lazy hazy crazy fog that permeates life when Mary Jane is one of your closest friends and the ridiculousness of your friends, lifestyle, and sexual partners when you’re under the consistent influence. If you’ve been there, you already know it; why pay to see it? If you haven’t been there it’s probably because you don’t want to; why pay to experience a slight though detailed glimpse of it? Bongwater is pretty weird: I’m glad it exists, I suppose, though its existence is more painful than anything else. Weird.

There is one thing I can fully recommend about Bongwater: the slice of relationship between David and Serena that moves the smoke-addled plot along is so freakishly close to one of my personal relationships that it gave me a little reassurance and hope that others in the world have/are suffering through a complex and bizarre romance with a crazy yet captivating girl that makes everything else in life seemed boring in contrast. Maybe that’s the true pearl inside Bongwater. Peel away the drug details and the secret heart of the film is revealed in the modern “romance” David and Serena engage in. Bowie sang “I don’t believe in modern love” and Bongwater doesn’t seem to either for most of its running time, but then… well, for that you will have to watch it. Whether or not you think its ending includes one of the biggest deus ex machinas ever, it’s hard to deny that David and Serena’s relationship isn’t true-to-life and representative of what many modern young people suffer through. If you happened to see Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen and thought “Hey, that’s my girl!”, Bongwater offers a long hard look at the dark side of the drama queen, and the gamut of effects that her presence can inflict upon your life.

I offer my congratulations to those who, in their lives, have completely avoided without regret the elements that make up the structure of Bongwater. For the rest of us, well, a trip down memory lane might be fun. And when you’re done, I’ll see you in therapy!

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