The Money Tree

1993, Movie, NR, 94 mins

Review

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Usually when a film is accused of embracing illegal drug use that's a scathing criticism. In the case of THE MONEY TREE it's a simple statement of fact: this independent feature depicts the perils and satisfactions of growing and marketing one's own marijuana crop.

Deep in dense mountain forests outside San Francisco, David (Christopher Dienstag), an unemployed actor, raises a verdant acreage of reefer. "I like being a farmer," he says, even though his rich-bitch lover Erica (Monica T. Caldwell) has her tycoon daddy's promise to give David a dream job overseeing a tropical factory, if only he would cease his illegal gardening. David refuses, since harvest time is only a month away. Erica splits, and David goes back to his dope.

The script was largely improvised, which accounts for a casual plot that may accurately be described as narrative seeds and stems. David tentatively agrees to sell his entire crop to a sleazy art-gallery owner named Vincent (Malcolm Cohen). Then one of David's casual customers gets arrested, and an angry David argues with a pragmatic playwright friend over the dubious morality of America's Reagan-era anti-drug campaign, which the hip hero manages to lump in with Agent Orange, Nicaragua and the "Star Wars" satellite defense system. He makes a point when he notes that a perfectly legal drug--alcohol--destroys more lives each year than pot: "Have you ever seen anyone lying in the gutter with a joint in his hand?" ("Well, yes, actually," retorted one critic.)

Then, demonstrating that nobody is above self-righteousness, the filmmakers throw in a mini-SCARFACE subplot about David's old pal Pasquel (Carlos Deloche). He smuggles cocaine, an enterprise David disdains, especially since Pasquel's gotten hooked on his own stuff. Next scene: the wayward Pasquel gunned down by a treacherous associate.

With the violence of that episode still fresh in mind, David reaps his precious patch by night, dodging police helicopters and roadside searches. When he goes to Vincent for the money, however, vicious thugs ambush and threaten to kill both of them if David doesn't hand over his stash. It's all an act, though--phony gunmen hired by Vincent--and since David anticipated such a ripoff he's got his cargo of cannabis safely hidden. In the final scene David and his more trustworthy allies sit in a restaurant and wonder what to do with the profits from his 30 lbs. of grass. Why not make a movie about it? And the assembled cast turns to the camera and drinks a toast.

A genuinely maverick effort, THE MONEY TREE deviates from previous drug-outlaw dramas like CISCO PIKE, SUPER FLY, and WHO'LL STOP THE RAIN? by dispensing with the familiar narrative of the tormented pusher trying to make his last big score and go straight. The easygoing David enjoys his lifestyle, believes in what he's doing (he delivers pain-easing doobies to a hospitalized cancer patient, who comments that David is the only friend who still visits), and refuses to change even though Erica offers a respectable job with even greater income. David claims that dope farming is dangerous, backbreaking labor, but scenes of him working his field are rendered as a woodland idyll, with the hero literally dancing across huge fallen logs and bathing under a rainbow-hued waterfall. THE MONEY TREE may be little more than a plea for the legalization of hemp, but that novelty along with the congenial presentation, make its message fresher than Hollywood's recent hard sell of the Nancy Reagan "Just Say No To Drugs" doctrine.

Debuting filmmaker Alan Dienstag, both a beat poet and a veteran of the San Francisco theater scene (including a stint as guest director for the Committee), shot this feature on weekends, starting in 1987. He assembled most of the dialogue through rehearsals with the performers, putting together the picture in a loose fashion complemented by the jazz music score. Casting son Christopher (who, the press kit resume proudly boasts, was formerly a landscaper, busboy and sales clerk at Sears) was a wise move, since the younger Dienstag makes an engaging and unpretentious leading man. Most of the characters are quirky, though the ad-libbed lines run hot and cold, and the 16mm production looks amazingly sharp, thanks to cinematographer Don Bonato's efforts on a $300,000 budget.

THE MONEY TREE premiered in September, 1992. The filmmakers self-distributed their work, even when it made its videocassette bow in 1993. Christopher Dienstag said the major problem lay with advertising; film companies didn't want to hawk any product emblazoned with a marijuana leaf, but the Dienstags were adamant that the image stayed on the picture. The movie was well-received as a cult item, playing festivals, art-houses, and even a few mall multiplexes. (Profanity, substance abuse, sexual situations, violence, adult situations, nudity.) leave a comment

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