[5 August 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
For some reason, the stoner fails to get the same cinematic respect as other substance abusing characters. The alcoholic and the heroin addict are usually wrapped in semi-seriousness, while the pot head gets demoted to pharmaceutical comic relief. Granted, it’s hard to take the personality type seriously when incessant giggling, non-stop gluttony, and a lack of world perspective follows their wake and bake activities. From Cheech and Chong to Harold and Kumar, the standard strategies apply - toke, smoke, and joke. But not in the latest entry from the Apatow factory. Pineapple Express wants to take the blunt into some uncharted cinematic territory. And thanks to some sensational performances, and an interesting perspective behind the camera, it more than succeeds.
Process server Dale Denton really loves his life. He spends his days smoking pot and delivering subpoenas. He spends the rest of his time doing bong hits and hanging out with his high school aged girlfriend Angie. Dale buys his dope from a well meaning dealer named Saul Silver. Typical with most marijuana merchants, this long haired ‘dude’ feels a close bond with his clientele. When Dale witnesses a murder, he runs to Saul for help. Seems the weed may connect the witness to the crime, and since a local mobster and a crooked cop are involved, our hemp-infused heroes are not safe. With the help of Red, another chronic connection, they will try to survive this trip down the potentially lethal ‘Pineapple Express’.
Wonderfully vulgar, brilliantly performed, and accented with action reminiscent of an ‘80s buddy film, Pineapple Express is one late summer success. It takes the patented funny business formula that resurrected comedy over the last few years and fine tunes it into something both inventive and indicative, retro in its drug-fueled farce while up to date in its more dangerous elements. Concentrating on character more than situations, and drive by expert direction from indie icon David Gordon Green (George Washington, Snow Angels) many will find this clever combination off putting. While we like other unlikely cinematic amalgamations (horror/satire, crime/comic book) the often jarring juxtaposition between dope and danger does take some getting used to. But once it clicks, Pineapple Express becomes that rare experience where we’re satisfied on both accounts.
Acting is key to accepting such strategies, and both Seth Rogen and James Franco deliver amazing performances. The Knocked Up/Superbad star finds new ways to turn his hound dog delivery and personal pathos into a winning, often aggravating soul. We want to see Dale succeed, but not in the hedonistically juvenile manner he seems to prefer. Rogen’s moments with Amber Heard as his barely legal gal pal Angie have an uneasy, ‘go on and grow up’ kind of immediacy. Later, when he finally meets her parents, the foul mouthed confrontation confirms that this relationship may not be the best thing for either party. Rogen is the audience’s window into a world most probably never knew (or, at the very least, haven’t revisited since college), and he does a fine job as a narrative casement.
But it’s Franco that’s the real revelation here, offering up a kind of permanently stunned slacker with a code of ethics so scattered they tend to blur the lines between truth and THC. Most of the time, it’s hard to tell who’s talking - Saul or the smoke. With his eyes glazed over and his cadence recalling the classic character type, we expect this performance to be pat and kind of stereotyped. But Franco fools us over and over with his unbridled brilliance. He uses elements that might seem maudlin or meaningless (he only deals so his grandmother can live in a “nice” nursing home) and infuses them with power and emotion. When the last act gunplay hits the fan, we’re struck at how concerned we are for this dope peddling drone’s well being.
Most of this comes from the screenplay, another Rogen/Evan Goldberg gem. But the influence of filmmaker Green should never be discounted. Because his movies have mainly focused on people and how they react to specific circumstances, he’s the perfect guide to turn the outrageous into something believable and worth rooting for. Even when Danny McBride shows up as the weirdly anti-hip Red, with an unreal collection of pop culture leftovers, Green makes him into something endearing. Even better, the direction here flaunts the requirements of a big screen stunt spectacle. The showdown between our heroes and the basic bad guys (Gary Cole and Rosie Perez in sheer scenery chewing mode) doesn’t come as a shock so much as a natural extension of the environment these individuals function in.
This is, in fact, Pineapple Express‘s most interesting conceit. We often fail to realize that marijuana, while somewhat socially acceptable and highly recreational, remains a very illegal substance. Police and Federal Drug Enforcers no longer turn a blind eye toward the casual user, and the money to be made on such an in-demand diversion puts everyone involved on edge. That things suddenly explode between Dale, Saul and Red, and eventually with the local crime syndicate is to be expected. Yet most stoner comedies treat the law and the lawless as something to be mocked or merely ignored. Pineapple Express is perhaps the first pot laughfest that actually takes its crime and punishment seriously.
That sudden shift into outsized reality will definitely lose some fans. ‘Feel good’ should never be combined with ‘feel scared’, at least for most moviegoers. But the brazen way in which Pineapple Express messes with the formula, the way it flaunts genre while moving beyond its limits suggests the future of the format. For a long time now, the movie comedy has suffered from a stagnancy borne out of laziness and a lack of ideas. The Apatow camp consistently proves that almost anything can be added to the satiric mix with maximum results. Whether it’s a hit or not is beside the point. Pineapple Express satisfies on so many levels that to undermine its effectiveness seems pointless.