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Comic Perils of a Pot Farmer
by Mick LaSalle, Chronicle Staff Critic

The Moneytree is an independent feature about a young marijuana grower in Marin County coming to a crossroads in his life - no, but keep reading anyway. This peculiar picture, which opens today at the Kabuki, has something.

It was directed by Alan Dienstag, who apparently was a beat poet in North Beach in the '50s. His first feature shows a nice assurance, an ease in its storytelling that is not at all sloppy. 

The Moneytree stars the director’s son Christopher Dienstag, as David, the pot farmer. The younger Dienstag, who resembles shock-jock Howard Stern, seems uncomfortable in the movie’s  opening scenes – he does too much smiling and looks in every direction but at the camera. Yet early on, he loosens up and makes David someone we care about.

Cash Crop

It’s about a month from harvest time in the woods near Mount Tamalpais, and David is sitting on a crop worth up to $70,000. But between now and when he puts the money into his pocket, there are rows of hurdles: keeping the plants healthy, looking out for police helicopters and trying not to get killed when he sells it. He also has a girlfriend (Monica Caldwell) - a rich daddy's girl with a foul mouth - who wants him to get out now and go into her father's business. 

The daddy's-business option doesn't seem all that terrible. David could wind up in prison or get killed if he keeps up the farm. He doesn’t seem to feel strongly about marijuana, beyond thinking that it's comparatively harmless, so it's hard to see the point when the movie implies that an important principle is at stake in his continuing this life

...a funny portrait of one man’s world - “funny” in both senses of the word, because it’s also strange and, at times, even haunting.

But the appeal of The Moneytree has little to do with making a point. Its appeal is in the power and uniqueness of its individual scenes and in the way they create a funny portrait of one man's world - "funny" in both senses of the word, because it's also strange and, at times, even haunting.

Director Dienstag gives us scenes here that have nothing to do with the story, but that somehow belong. In one scene, he visits a sick friend in the hospital and just sits with him through silences that are excruciating.

Spontaneous Feel

According to 'publicity' the dialogue in The Moneytree was entirely improvised. If that's true, that's surprising, because the dialogue here doesn't have that deadly improvised sound. In fact, some of the writing - or improvising - seems so polished that it's hard to imagine how it could be spontaneous. The actors seem relaxed throughout, which is not usually the case when they're worried about having to come up with something to say.

All the characters in The Moneytree are vivid. Dienstag tempers the comedy with moments of unexpected drama, and the picture's resolution is genuinely tense. The Moneytree rolls off with such ease that It's tempting to think it was an accident that it worked so well, but I doubt it.

THE MONEYTREE Comedy, Starring Christopher Dienstag and Monica Caldwell. Directed by Alan Dienstag. (No rating. 94 minutes, At the Kabuki in San Francisco, Albany in the East Bay, and the Lark in Marin County.)