Sunday, August 24, 2008

In Theaters: Pineapple Express

Poster found at IMPAwards.com
The roots of PINEAPPLE EXPRESS are familiar; it’s a stoner comedy in the vein of Cheech and Chong, adding in a general eighties buddy movie vibe complete with mindless action and male bonding. But the blend of its influences is so unusual that you end up with one of the weirdest movies of the summer season, a mix of pot humor, stupidity, and brutal carnage. And it’s all done very well, written and directed by smart and skilled people who are totally dedicated to making their twisted homage work. PINEAPPLE EXPRESS is a labor of love, and the enthusiasm is catching.

Seth Rogen is Dale Denton, a process server and stoner dating a high school senior (Amber Heard.) He buys pot from a very pleasant but perhaps overly friendly dealer named Saul (James Franco), who is most certainly getting high on his own supply. One day Saul introduces Dale to a new blend, Pineapple Express, possibly the most powerful weed ever bred. It is so good it feels bad to smoke it; it’s not so much a narcotic as a work of art. But smoke it Dale does, on his way to serve papers to Ted Jones (Gary Cole), who as it happens is at the top of Saul’s supply chain. Sitting outside Ted’s house, Saul sees him and an attractive lady cop (Rosie Perez) execute an asian man (who, unbeknownst to him, is a member of a rival mob); he freaks out and drives away, leaving his joint on the street. Ted, of course, recognizes the blend, and knows who must have sold it, and so puts out a hit on Saul and whoever it was that he sold to. Dale is just lucid enough to put two and two together, and after explaining it as best he can to Saul, heads out to try and hide and/or find a way to get out of this mess. Also, he’s got to meet his girlfriend’s parents for dinner.

One of the advantages of doing a stoner comedy is that you’ve got a very good reason for your characters to act stupid. Dale is a smart guy, but every hit he takes tends to obscure that. Saul may theoretically have some intelligence, but he’s reached that state of perpetual stonerhood which makes ever recovering it unlikely. Very few people in this movie, possibly none, know what they are doing. That does not stop them trying.

The level of action in the film is higher than you’d expect from its low-key beginnings, and the fact that the people doing the action have no business doing so is the basis of much of the humor. There’s a scene at Saul’s dealer’s house that escalates into one of the most ludicrously inept brawls I’ve ever seen, a sloppy and ugly affair that becomes funny in its desperation. (I was reminded of Scorcese’s MEAN STREETS, but without the grace.) At times everyone’s ineptitude and tendency to talk over each other is grating, and it’s the kind of thing that’s easy to overdo, but it’s funny more than it is annoying. As with a lot of films from this writing team- Rogen himself, Evan Goldberg, and Judd Apatow, who’s credited with part of the story but not the screenplay- the dialogue is natural and the characterizations strong enough to hold us for what is basically two hours of pot jokes and violence. Director David Gordon Green, known mostly for sedate and earnest films like ALL THE REAL GIRLS, is surprisingly at ease in this environment.

I knew Seth Rogen was good in this kind of part thanks to KNOCKED UP and so on, but James Franco’s performance is a genuine surprise. You may remember him as Harry Osborn from the SPIDER-MAN movies, or not, depending on how much attention you were paying. You may also remember him from FREAKS AND GEEKS, or possibly his role as “Bar Guy #1” in the WICKER MAN remake. In any case, he’s great here, revealing hitherto unknown comic talents. Rosie Perez is also a nice surprise, and Ed Begley, Jr. has a magnificent cameo role. There are a lot of good performances here, in big and small roles alike; just about everyone gets a chance to shine.

If there’s one problem I have with the film, it’s that I’m not sure just how necessary Dale’s girlfriend is to the picture. The dinner scene is priceless, to be sure, but the character sort of gets forgotten by the third act, and since this is at heart a male bonding film the poor girl’s kind of superfluous from the start. There’s also the whole plot element of her being 18 and Dale being, well, not, which isn’t necessarily appalling but seems to be raised without leading to much. Judd Apatow has been accused of perhaps being too male-centric in his work and relegating the female characters to the sidelines, and it would be nice to see him apply the sort of amoral wisdom to a woman’s story as a man’s, but I digress (this isn’t really his movie anyway). The girlfriend here seems slightly extraneous, though she provides a couple of good scenes so I don’t know.

Anyway, if you enjoy watching people act much stupider than they would normally be, and don’t mind a bit of gritty violence thrown in the mix, you could do a lot worse than this. There’s even a bit of commentary on American drug policy mixed in, in that nothing in this film would happen if Dale didn’t have to buy pot from some guy he barely knew with vague connections to organized crime. PINEAPPLE EXPRESS put me in mind of last year’s HOT FUZZ, and though it’s not as well-crafted it creates the same good vibes.

Story by Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg
Screenplay by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg
Directed by David Gordon Green
Grade: A-

1 comment:

movie buff said...

first half of Pineapple Express was about half as good as Knocked Up; the second half was almost as bad as Freddy God Fingered