Pineapple Express opens with some revisionist history. In 1937, the story goes, the U.S. military was conducting marijuana experiments. Deep beneath a desert surface, an eye-patched general (James Remar) is appalled by the giddy discourtesy exhibited by the test subject (“I’m serious: your dick, my mouth”), and decides in that instant to shut down the project, “dispose of” the giggling soldier (Bill Hader), and declare the substance illegal. “Final order!” he harrumphs.
But of course. Shot in beautiful black-and-white, sticking it to the fascist squares who reject weed out of hand, this prelude is sure to delight the target audience for Pineapple Express. And it leads directly to the logical product of such immoderate proscription — Dale Denton (Seth Rogan), Stoner Par Excellence. Dale’s exactly the guy will love this movie, times 10. A process server and Hostess Sno Balls fan, he gets high before each assignment, cruises the streets in his “vintage” Cadillac, and has girlfriend who’s still in high school. Score one for Dale, perpetual adolescent: Angie (Amber Heard, playing essentially the same role she played in the short-lived series, Hidden Palms) is not only hot and blond and pouty, but she thinks he’s the shit, maybe because her parents will hate him, maybe because he’s older than her sculpted male classmates, and maybe because he brings weed. Whatever the reason, Dale feels blessed: he never has to engage in a conversation beyond his limits. “You’re great,” he tells her, “You’re fun and you’re sexy.”
Dale doesn’t know it yet, but he’s going to have a buddy in this movie as well. After inadvertently witnessing a murder, Dale panics, hightailing it to the only apartment where he’s ever felt safe, belong to his dealer, Saul (James Franco), purveyor of “some of the rarest weed known to mankind,” Pineapple Express. As they smoke a little and mull over the pieces of what’s happened — some fuzzy, some misconstrued, some vibrantly remembered — they come to the conclusion, however unlikely, that they’re in this mess together, on the run from a vicious drug dealer named Ted (Gary Cole), and his bad cop girlfriend Carol (Rosie Perez). They decide to leave town, in a hurry, but somehow, being high and all, they never quite make it.
Like Cheech and Chong or Harold and Kumar, Dale and Saul stumble from episode to episode, laughing, mumbling, never quite realizing the calamity they’re facing. Also according to formula, they seek help from a fellow even more moronic and mistake-prone than they are, in this case, Red (the fearless Danny McBride). And don’t forget the car chasing, the pratfalling, and the incessant misunderstanding, all less funny than they might be if you were as stoned as the misunderstanders. It could be, as Dale assesses, that weed “just makes everything better.” Or it could be that the film’s formulaic hijinks are less innovative than its anti-authoritarian thematics.
Just so: the boys’ bonding, though surely heartfelt, is crushingly predictable. They quarrel and share, they panic and plan, they break up and make up, all rather like running in place. That said, the film expands the visual field for these machinations. Director David Gordon Green (the wondrous George Washington) and his longtime cinematographer Tim Orr (both unexpected recruits by Team Judd Apatow) conjure widescreen, strangely romantic frames for the buddy bonding. After a night out in the woods, their car battery dead, Dale and Saul make their way to the road, pausing for smokes and ruminations, as well as a little leapfrog, their burgeoning friendship signaled in a strikingly sweet montage, complete with dappled sunlight. (These images recall as well the masculine tensions that shaped Green’s All the Real Girls or Undertow).
While Angie serves her purpose, ensuring Dale’s heterosexuality, the boys are so clearly better suited for one another, sharing interests, fears, and utter dedication to their drug of choice. They also share some extreme battering, inflicted and suffered. Suspecting (appropriately late) that Red is in league with Ted and his goons, Budlofsky (Kevin Corrigan) and Matheson (Craig Robinson), Dale undertakes a marathon battle with his erstwhile associate They whack, kick, punch, slam, and stab one another for long minutes, their bloodied foreheads and fat lips signs of newly achieved manhood.
Like the general’s scars in the first scene, these markers are a joke. But the joke is conventionally vulgar and uninspired. As the boys go on to find themselves in serial fights and reconciliations, Pineapple Express does offer an occasional spark of tenderness or perversity — of a piece with the cute little nose touch at the end of Superbad, also written by Rogen and Evan Goldberg. But their trajectory is mostly what you expect: the mechanics of boy bonding, loud, bloody, and high.