Back in 2014, weed-wanting residents of Colorado were able to fire up the bong and feel the burn legally when the state became one of the first in the Union to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. As reefer madness swept the Rockies, the rest of the nation sat and watched pensively. It wasn’t the second coming of same-sex marriage in terms of divisiveness, but there was controversy and bilious outrage—just check out some of Nancy Grace’s shrill prophecies of lawless mayhem. Rolling Papers, Mitch Dickman’s somber, oft snarky documentary, doesn’t quite deal with the cornerstone legalization so much as the Denver Post’s decision to appoint a marijuana editor to provide journalistic coverage of the budding industry and culture emerging from the shadows of the black market.
The film’s focuses on Ricardo Baca, the newly minted editor of the “Cannabist” column (which later becomes a break out magazine section-cum-website), who registers as a relatively somber and reflective soul given the high nature of his subject. Pontifications about what to write about when penning pot-life pieces abound. Ultimately, the format boils down to reviews of the various strains and blends—think of it like a film or food review about getting baked—and lifestyle exposés of the different kinds of users and the ways that legal weed now melds into their lives. One such staff blogger, Brittany Driver, is a mom with a toddler, which doesn’t sit well with a fellow Post editor who covers child abuse and likens the prospect to parenting on a six-pack of beer.
Dickman’s film is a bit like its subject—smoky, comfortable and unfocused. While the narrative adheres tightly to Baca and the debut of the column, it also ventures a bit further afield, touching on broader issues like the erosion of journalism. Unfortunately, it does so without providing much additional context or insight. Another germane yet under-explored topic includes the use of medical marijuana and the positive effects it’s had (replete with a few testimonials), but then the film jumps to a sextet of charismatic brothers who hit it big in the medicinal sector, tersely branding them opportunistic charlatans, before jumping back to Baca and his staff. It’s a disjointed head scratcher that at times makes you feel like you need to be sampling the goods to be in on the game.
The film’s most fired up when Ry Prichard, the cannabis nerd (a term he was awarded in the pages of Rolling Stone) brought in to backfill for Driver’s inexperience, is clicking away close ups of bodacious buds and giving them the taste test. His sharp comic wit and voracious love for all things green and oily, becomes a necessary offset to the other, more dour personas who grace the screen.
Ultimately,, the biggest reason Rolling Papers fails to fully ignite lays in its inherent lack of conflict. Baca’s well backed by the paper’s brass, so we know “The Cannabist” isn’t going anywhere. Much of the tension comes through Driver’s anxiety over job security, an investigative piece that busts a regulated seller for shilling weak shit (near nonexistent levels of THC) and the disappointment of having Whoopi Goldberg signed on to pen a column, only to have her change her mind. If you check out the website, you’ll get a smattering of weed reviews and a lot of pictures sent in from happy partakers. It’s a fun, yet thin footprint, one that Dickman the filmmaker doesn’t bother to go outside the lines to explore. High times in high altitudes doesn’t necessarily spark an interest for those not at the party.
Director: Mitch Dickman
Writer: Mitch Dickman
Starring: Ricardo Baca, Ry Prichard, Brittany Driver
Release Date: February 19, 2015
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge, Mass. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, Paste Magazine, The Rumpus, WBUR’s ARTery, Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere. You can follow him on Twitter