Friday, August 29, 2008

Now which would you rather be, an anal bead or a dragon?

My first laugh at Pineapple Express came as I entered the theatre and was overwhelmed by the musky odor of patchouli. It was as if every member of the movie's target audience had thought to themselves, "Man, if I don't do something, everyone's gonna know I'm high!" At a movie where just about everyone was high. And sure enough, the movie's black-and-white, '30s-set prologue - an unapologetic tribute to the pleasures of pot and a condemnation of anyone who disagrees as a joyless narc - had the audience roaring with approval. That said, it's not exactly a big accomplishment to make a pothead laugh; I'm happy to report that, even if you're sober, Pineapple Express is hilarious.

A mash-up of '80s-inspired action and stoner comedy that treats both genres not with hipster derision but with genuine affection, Pineapple Express follows process server Dale Denton (Seth Rogen) and his dealer Saul (James Franco) as they find themselves on the run after Dale witnesses a corrupt cop (Rosie Perez) and Saul's supplier Ted Jones (Gary Cole) commit a murder. Saul is mistakenly placed at the scene by Pineapple Express, a rare strain of marijuana left behind by the panicked Dale; the Express is the proverbial "good shit," so rare that, according to Saul, smoking it is "like killing a unicorn." Dale and Saul's attempts to save themselves are frequently interrupted by the Pineapple Express, making the film a charming hybrid - a high-octane chase that reminds its target audience how helpless they'd be in the same situation. The choice of All the Real Girls director David Gordon Green proves to be an inspired one; Green (who recently outed himself as an avowed Seagalologist) clearly had a blast directing against type, and his car chases and shootouts would make George P. Cosmatos proud. Green's improvisational method of filmmaking proves well-suited to the Judd Apatow repertory company, while finding room for moments, like a leisurely scene of Saul and Dale frolicking in the woods, that give the movie a goofy poetry absent from other Apatow productions (though one can see Apatow striving for it in his own films). If it's less identifiably personal than his earlier work, it presents the exciting possibility that Green may become the new Hal Ashby, comfortably shifting between genres while adding his own gentle authorial touch.

Green also meshes nicely with his two leads, whose adorable "bromosexual" chemistry drives the movie (the unspoken, awkward affection between male friends is perhaps the central theme in the Apatow ouevre). Rogen is effective in a role he rarely plays, the straight man - spending most of the movie confused, terrified or exasperated at Franco, he makes an excellent Abbott. It's Franco who gets to run with the stoner antics, and he's surprisingly hilarious; I've talked some shit about the guy in the past, and I'm officially prepared to take it back. He's a good actor, but his pretty-boy looks have gotten him repeatedly miscast in square-jawed roles, but between Freaks and Geeks and Pineapple Express, it's pretty clear that he should play fuckups more often. The first time we see Saul, he's watching 227 and Krull at the same time; five minutes later, he repeats a line from 227 to himself, and whether the moment was improvised or written, Franco's delivery is so perfectly offhanded that we feel like we've known this guy for years. Franco deserves a lot of credit for making Saul not just a stoner caricature but a sweet, slightly sad dude with a comendable sense of loyalty - I must admit, he reminded me of a friend of mine (who is not a dealer), and his performance made me appreciate my friend in a new light. You don't usually get that kind of insight from pot movies.

The rest of the ensemble is as strong - Danny McBride (memorable as Bust Ass from All The Real Girls) as Lando Calrissian surrogate Red has been signaled out by most of the reviews, and he is pretty hilarious. But I also appreciated Ed Begley Jr. (who gets the best line in the movie) as the father of Dale's teenage girlfriend and especially Craig Robinson as an effete hitman. That teen girlfriend (played by Amber Heard) is one of several threads that falls victim to the meandering plotting that is perhaps inevitable in a pot movie, but that's also one of the film's charms. When Dale announces that maybe he and Saul should quit smoking and grow up, I feared the film would fall victim to the clumsly moralism that shows up a lot in Apatow productions; thankfully, the characters soon forget this, as well as the fact that they've killed several people (the climax's unapologetic bloodletting going further than Hot Fuzz would allow itself). Pineapple Express plays out like the high that the titular weed promises; you don't quite remember, when the ending arrives, how you've gotten there, and the pieces don't quite make sense, if it even happened at all. But it sure makes for a hell of a laugh with your best friends. I know there's a pun to be made, but I'm letting it go.

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