Directed by David Gordon Green | Written by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Judd Apatow | With Seth Rogen, James Franco, and Danny R. Mcbride.
John Peel had a phrase that he used to express his admiration for post-punk pioneers The Fall, which now, oddly enough, seems most applicable in the film world as an insult hurled at the relentless string of recent Judd Apatow releases: Always different, always the same. So it goes with Pineapple Express, the latest foray into adolescent fantasy comedies, placing it comfortably inside the mold of The 40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, et al.
More of the same includes Apatow’s role as producer, father figure, and co-writer, which he penned with Superbad authors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Rogen of course, is a longtime Apatow mainstay. First seen on the ill-fated Freaks & Geeks, then making his star actor turn in Knocked Up, and eventually graduating to writing duties on Superbad, here he makes his first venture into both writing and starring. In Pineapple Express, Rogen plays Dale Denton, yet another variation of the Apatow protagonist: fat and/or nerdy, immature, dating an unreasonably attractive object of affection/desire, and boasting a dull and/or completely unbelievable job (e.g. electronics store, porn movie website). With a twist of Elmore Leonard, in perhaps and attempt to make Denton “cooler” than his previous incarnations, he’s a process server. Right. We’re given all this information in the beginning of the film in a montage, in which we see Rogen doing his best costume-cycling Fletch impersonation. When he’s not playing Fletch, he’s getting high in his car or making out with his girlfriend at her high school (!).
On difference, it’s about time an Apatow production ditched the stale made-for-TV look that plagued much of the crew’s early features (even Greg Mottola didn’t help). Enter director David Gordon Green and cinematographer Tim Orr, indie/festival darlings and the creative force behind the Terrence Malick-esque George Washington and All The Real Girls, among others (Undertow, Snow Angels). Green’s been accused of faux-lyricism and hack poetry as often has he’s been praised for it in this past decade, but he and Orr have always had an intuitive sense for ‘Scope framing and fluid camerawork. Pineapple Express is no exception. Yet, there seems to be little cohesion with Gordon’s visual style and the Apatow brand of humor. The long shot framing of many of Green’s compositions often contradicts the attempt at improvised, intricate humor, but occasionally works on a more broad scale (e.g. musical montages, leap-frog-in-the-woods scene).
Similarities and differences aside, enter Saul, Dale’s burnt out drug dealer, played (dare I say) brilliantly against type by the handsome (and former Freaks & Geeks co-star) James Franco. Boasting long hair and constantly distant, glazed stare, Franco hurls himself into the ultimate drug dealer cliché: lazy, confused, sensitive, and high as hell (see also Jeff Spicoli, though he looks more like James Dean than Sean Penn). On a routine visit, Dale and Saul smoke the newest, ‘best’ kind of weed around – Pineapple Express. And from there, in what might pass conceptually as a stroke of genius, the film begins to transform into a hackneyed action picture that might as well have just been made up by two stoned guys on a couch
So, high as a kite, Dale goes to serve some papers, but instead ends up witnessing a drug murder at the hands of the film’s stock villain Ted Jones (Gary Cole) and a corrupt police officer (Rosie Perez). Discovered as a witness at the scene, Dale flees back to Saul, and together, aside from getting high, they go on the run. At this point, the film abandons any aspirations it might have had as stoner comedy, and devolves into a pastiche of 1980s action films. The two are hunted by retro-hitmen Budlofsky (Kevin Corrigan) and Matheson (Craig Robinson), are caught in the middle of a newly sparked drug war between Ted Jones and a Yakuza gang, and are involved in car chases, fistfights, shootouts, etc.*
Given the respective age range of the creative forces at work here (Rogen is 25, Green is 32, Apatow is forever adolescent), the film’s turn as an action movie shouldn’t be surprising. Green has been forward with his childhood love for films like Rocky III and Iron Eagle in interviews before, and within the context, there’s a whole generation of people (myself included) who for better or worse grew up on Rocky, Schwarzenegger, Steven Seagal, and Jean-Claude Van Damme films (No Retreat, No Surrender, the title of a Van Damme film, is yelled out loud at one point by one of the Yakuza).
You can’t get mad at the boys for being themselves, and let’s be honest, there are far worst crimes than watching Bloodsport over and over again (relax, just covering my ass here). What you can get mad at however is that Pineapple Express offers nothing more than an inferior reproduction of era-specific genre picturemaking. But that’s not the worst of it, and at the risk of being called a wuss, my major complaint of Pineapple Express (aside from the lack of laughs and true stoner comedy), is that the violence is played for kicks. Maybe I just wasn’t ready for it, but around the time the film shifts into 80s-mode, it starts using graphic violence as means of punchline, which is both distasteful and painfully unfunny.**
Pineapple Express is a half-hearted endeavor, split into two. It’s got one hand in the traditional jar of tried and true stoner comedy, and one hand in with childhood nostalgia of 80s action films. The rest (e.g. plot, character archetypes) is nothing more than variations on already existing Apatow elements, and the attempt (if it is one) to blend and shift within genres ends up being dreadfully post-modern and jarring in its lack of fluidity. In the end, the three heroes, Dale, Saul, and Red, share breakfast at a diner. Having successfully avoided death on numerous occasions, having wielded AKs, punched, shot and killed the bad guys, the three recap the events that just happened. The immediacy, disbelief, and already-existing distance of their conversation evokes the best of stoner humor: 24 hours of their life turned into a bad version of a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, and their hysterical recap is the film’s only true comedic triumph. Too bad it took over 100 minutes to get there.
*I couldn’t figure out a decent way to get it into the above text, but it’s worth mentioning here that Danny McBride, who plays Red, Saul’s friend and fellow drug dealer, provides a bulk of the film’s humor.
**Some of the non-weapon related violence I found entertaining, e.g. Franco/Perez fistfighting)