Of all the ways the folks north of the border could have approached the story of a 1970s marijuana-use-and-its-consequences study, why’d they take the “Lifetime Original Movie” tack?
“The Marijuana Conspiracy” could have been an over-the-top “outrage” tale, with a hint of camp, like “Reefer Madness.” The funniest nation (per capita) on Earth could have gone “stoner romp.” Get Samantha Bee or Seth Rogen, Catherine O’Hara or Caroline Rhea on board.
But writer-director Craig Pryce (“The Dark”) went for something safe and squishy and sensitive instead. Maybe he got close to the real women this story is based on and felt too respectful. Whatever the case, what he turned out is too bland to make an impression.
The “true” story — in 1972, with marijuana use peaking and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (the new guy’s Dad) supposedly thinking of legalizing it, a “foundation” put government money into a study of its use and abuse.
The movie’s thesis, based on the fact that this study’s findings were never made public, is that the government covered-up the shocking news that pot isn’t The Demon Weed of Myth, the “gateway drug” to heroin, that it might not even “kill ambition,” as the montage of Canadian news coverage of the day seen here claims.
In the film, veteran character actor Derek McGrath is the cigar-chomping, whisky drinking diabetic in charge of the foundation underwriting the research, an old guy with “an agenda.”
Gregory Ambrose Calderone plays the vegetarian, long-haired hippy sociologist who argues for letting “the data speak for itself.” He gets the assignment because he’s young enough to “speak their lingo.”
And as they’re most concerned about pot’s effects on young women (ahem), this is what Project Venus would do. Two groups, a “control” group having no access to pot and a study group who’d have a nightly “eight o’clock toke” would be isolated for 98 days, put to work making Macrame, watched,questioned and weighed by staff.
Their behavior would be noted, their productivity measured, a psychotherapist (Paulino Nunes) would counsel them should pot paranoia kick in, and any “munchies” weight gain they experienced would be documented.
The young women, under 25, were hand-picked from applications and screening interviews. They’d be well-payed, and they’d have access to legal weed every night before bedtime.
Those women are a cross-section of Toronto life — the college-bound Black woman (Tymika Tafari), the pale, underweight homeless girl (Julia Sarah Stone), the indulged, globe-trotting experimenter/”enthusiast” (Kyla Avril Young) and so on.
“This is gonna be the BEST job ever!”
The staff would include the nurse (Marie Ward) the ladies nickname “Nurse Ratched” and the hunky research assistant (Luke Bilyk) with inappropriate eyes for one of the subjects.
We see the women settle in, the data start piling up and the THC dosage raised to measure how much is too much when it comes to lethargy impacting productivity, and how much pot contributes to the shaky mental health of women kept from direct contact or even phone calls with their families. (This seems pointless, scientifically).
The players make light surface impressions through the film’s pranks and giggling fits and uncomfortable chats with the hidebound, pipe-smoking shrink who is about 50 years away from ever being “woke.”
This cross-section of Toronto in the ’70s has racism, sexism, homelessness and homophobia to wrestle with, even as those enduring that are getting their “mellow yellow” on every night at eight.
Thus, “Conspiracy” overreaches, tries to comment on too many other issues bubbling to the surface at the end of the ’60s. That’s why the film is entirely to long, and that’s why it doesn’t really play. Pryce loses the thread and wallows in the melodrama rather than in focusing on stoned flirtations, stoner hijinks and hard data that starts to suggest that maybe pot isn’t a bad way to take the edge off, and that it has other benefits as well.
The implications of all this are clear and damning, as holding up legalization (it’s now legal all over Canada) filled prisons, invented new organized crime players and generally accomplished nothing good.
That serious subtext and the social justice stuff jammed-in explains why the picture never finds a pleasant tone and the story, rather than zipping by, feels bogged down, “Day One” to “Day 98.”
MPA Rating: unrated, sex, alcohol use, pot use, profanity, smoking
Cast: Tymika Tafari, Julia Sarah Stone, Kyla Avril Young, Morgan Kohan, Luke Bilyk, Gregory Ambrose Calderone, Derek McGrath and Paulino Nunes.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Craig Pryce. A Samuel Goldwyn release.
Running time: 2:02