Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Produced by Judd Apatow and written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (the same creative team that delivered Superbad), Pineapple Express serves up a combination of The Big Lebowski, True Romance , and Hot Fuzz. The film opens with a flashback at some top-secret underground military base where the government appears to be doing drug testing on the soldiers. The soldier we see puffing happily away declares whatever it is he's smoking to be the greatest thing ever. The tight-assed officer immediately declares the substance illegal and closes down the operation. Hold that thought and flash forward.
Dale and his teenage girlfriend at high school (Sony Pictures)
It's the present day and Dale (Seth Rogen) is driving around delivering summons and smoking a joint. As he's cruising around he stops by the local high school where he checks in with his girlfriend (a cute Amber Heard) who happens to be a senior there. But in some ways she's the more mature one. Before the day's out, Dale makes a visit to Saul (a hilarious James Franco) to buy some weed. Saul says he's got some amazing new stuff called Pineapple Express (now think back to what they were smoking in the flashback). Dale tries it out, falls in love with it and takes off. But as he's waiting to deliver a late night summons, he witnesses a drug war hit while he's taking a hit in his car. Dale panics, drops the joint, and heads over to Saul's. Then all hell breaks loose as the killers trace the rare weed back to Saul and attempt to track Dale down.
Pineapple Express reminded me of the Quentin Taratino-Tony Scott film True Romance in which a pair of young lovers go on the lam. In that film, Brad Pitt played a drugged out dude whose pot haze seemed to protect him from the violence running rampant in the film. Franco takes on that Brad Pitt role as he moves blithely through the violence of Pineapple Express. And there is a lot of violence. More than fans of Apatow and Rogen are likely to expect. It's a bit like Hot Fuzz on weed as its character move out of their element into a drug war where they are forced to take up arms to defend themselves. But while Hot Fuzz allowed its characters to reach action movie nirvana, the protagonists of Pineapple Express remain hopelessly but amusingly inept. They fight badly, they don't know how to handle guns, and they look klutzy running yet they manage to persevere. At one point they grab a bunch of weapon and as the music rises they start to load and cock the weapons but the scene abruptly ends and the surging music cuts off as the film seems to acknowledge how inappropriate such a build up is.
The wrong way to tie someone up (Sony Pictures)
In something of a baffling choice, lyrical indie filmmaker David Gordon Green was chosen to helm Pineapple Express . Green made one of my favorite indie films, George Washington , and his delicate eye for social detail seems wasted or at the very least not needed in this broad, violent, gross out comedy. His direction here is adequate but he doesn't invest the film with any particular flair. A different director might have been able to kick up the goofy comedy or instill the action with more verve or humor. Green just seems to get by rather than excel in his first attempt at mainstream filmmaking. But in the end I remained a bit baffled by this choice.
Rogen is playing essentially the same character he's already defined for us before. At Comic-Con someone asked if he was worried about being typecast and he pointed out that since he writes these parts for himself he must not be worried about confining himself to certain roles. But Rogen is perfect as the rather immature guy who manages to maintain a job and something of a relationship but devoting minimal effort to both. But his laidback attitude is appealing and he has nice moments, as when he looks over to a car next to him and realizes that both he and the other driver are rocking out to the same song. Or his ability to suddenly show a bit of humanity as he rails against Franco's Saul and abruptly stops to apologize and say, "That sounded mean." But Rogen's Dale also has enough awareness during this crisis to realize that maybe they need to stop lighting up for a bit because they are "not functional" when they are high. Once again Rogen as both an actor and a screenwriter serves up a tale of male bonding in which that friendship ends up being the most important thing in the film.
Male bonding triumphs over all (Sony Pictures)
But the real surprise in the movie is Franco. Who would have thought that this cute young leading man who seemed so somber in the Spider-Man films would have such a natural gift for comedy. He underplays to perfection and finds a physical humor to Saul as well. Just check out this scene where Dale and Saul are in a stolen police car and attempt to engage in an action movie style car chase.
Franco is definitely the scene-stealer but Danny McBride as a hapless fellow drug dealer also has some fine comic moments. As a pair of thugs, Kevin Corrigan and Craig Robinson bicker amusingly and deliver bad guys with a soft edge.
Pineapple Express (rated R for pervasive language, drug use, sexual references and violence) is self-deprecating enough to offer both fuel for its critics and a disclaimer for any shortcomings by having one character describe the benefits of pot as being it makes "shitty movies better." That in essence suggests that if this film falls short maybe you just need to light up a joint, maybe even one of the goofy cross-joints Saul invents. Pineapple Express is by no means great art nor does it approach the warmth and character development of the Apatow-Rogen collaboration in Knocked Up. But Pineapple Express will most definitely make you laugh and maybe even laugh so hard that you'll cry. And sometimes that's enough.
Listen to our discussion about Pineapple Express from this month's Film Club of the Air.
Companion viewing: Hot Fuzz, True Romance, Superbad, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Up in Smoke