There's a long history of stoner comedies. From Cheech and Chong, to Jay and Silent Bob, to Harold and Kumar, the screen has seen its share of tokers and smokers. Never having tried marijuana, I find stoner humor to be relatively hit or miss. I love Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, for example, but will never understand the appeal of Friday. Pineapple Express pulls off the amazing trick of elevating the stoner comedy into something resembling art. The operative word there is "resembling." This movie is not art, nor does it aspire to be. However, it is an artfully done entry in a comedic sub-genre not known for artiness. Does that make sense, or just sound like pothead logic?
Seth Rogen plays Dale Denton, a process server who dates an 18 year-old high school senior and smokes marijuana during down time on his job. How's that for immature? Dale regularly buys his drugs from Saul Silver (James Franco), a guy who clearly breaks the first rule of dealing: don't use your own product. The two have a revealing discussion where Dale cops to smoking on the job, Saul verbally wishes that he had a job like that, and Dale points out that Saul does, in fact, have a job where he can smoke weed all day. Oh yeah, says Saul. This, kids, is why you should just say no.
Saul provides Dale with a new, especially potent strain of pot called Pineapple Express. He's the only dealer in the city who has it. This causes problems when Dale, on duty, witnesses local drug lord Ted Jones (Gary Cole) and a crooked cop (Rosie Perez) assassinate a rival. Dropping his joint out the car window while attempting to flee the scene, he later realizes that the drug lord might find it, trace it back to Saul, and come looking for them both. Of course, this is exactly what happens. The two go on the lam and are pursued by Jones's armed henchmen (Craig Robinson and Kevin Corrigan). For help, they turn to Saul's "middleman" Red (Danny McBride), whose allegiance shifts depending on whether or not there's a gun to his head. Everything culminates in a war between two rival drug organizations, with our toasted heroes in the middle.
The amusing undertone of Pineapple Express is that, while Dale and Saul love their weed, they aren't particularly coherent after they smoke it. The situation in which they find themselves is so perilous that they'd really be better off facing it sober. But they aren't sober, so they must fumble through as best as their pot-addled minds will allow them to. Rogen and co-writer Evan Goldberg also penned last year's hit Superbad; both pictures share a vision of two guys bonding in the face of misadventures. As with that earlier picture, this one has some hidden meaning beneath the surface. It's not about pot so much as about how two vulnerable men come to rely on one another, how they put their altered states of consciousness together so that they might survive. You know the old saying about two heads being better than one? In this story, two impaired minds end up being about equal to one competent mind.
Pineapple Express was directed by David Gordon Green, an independent filmmaker who typically makes artsy pictures like George Washington, All the Real Girls, and Snow Angels. This is by far his most commercial project to date, and what's interesting is that he finds precisely the right tone to make it feel like an indie rather than a summer blockbuster with an all-star cast. Under his guidance, this is a comedy that doesn't play like a comedy. What I mean is that it's not a film where obvious punchlines come at regular intervals. The masterstroke of Green was to play the whole movie completely straight and let the humor seep through wherever it wants. You couldn't accurately call the story "realistic," yet it plays fairly by its own rules, never once letting on that it knows it's funny. The only thing I can think to compare Pineapple Express to is Midnight Run, which similarly mixed action and comedy in an unconventional but symbiotic manner.
There are some wonderful, odd little detours along the way, such as the moment where Dale shows up to meet his girlfriend's parents for the first time, only to inform them that he's being pursued and they may be in danger as well. (Ed Begley, Jr. plays the dad in a terrific cameo.) There is also a lot of amusement in the way Dale and Saul occasionally stop to take a few puffs, even in the middle of danger. One of these episodes leads to a game of leapfrog. Always a nice pastime when killers are hunting you. Perhaps the best scene is the obligatory car chase that, in this instance doesn't feel obligatory at all. It's kind of amazing how a Slurpee, a police car, and a foot all come together to create a new kind of havoc.
Seth Rogen and James Franco have worked together before on the great TV show "Freaks & Geeks." (If you've never seen it, go buy the DVD box set right now!) That familiarity gives them phenomenal chemistry here. The actors play off one another perfectly, working like a team to deliver laughs and suspense while still portraying interesting characters. Dale and Saul avoid the whole bickering thing that so many action/comedy duos get bogged down in. They're basically both the same side of the coin. It's kind of cool, too, that Franco plays the role you'd expect Rogen to play, and vice versa. Again, this is an example of the movie's catch-you-off-guard spirit.
The thing I liked most about the film - and the thing that elevates it - is that it has a very cool vibe. Some stoner comedies are all about the pot jokes and nothing else. Pineapple Express, on the other hand, tells a story about two guys who just happen to be stoners. There's no condescension here, and no pandering to the tokers in the crowd. The film buys into the plight of its characters, encouraging us to care about them rather than merely giggling at their dazed and confused antics. By the end, things admittedly get a bit violent. Even so, the focus remains on the people rather than on bloodshed.
Some may find the casual attitude toward marijuana use to be off-putting, but to me the movie neither glorified nor condemned the drug; it just told a highly entertaining story about two dudes bonding over their love of weed and their desire to get clear-headed enough to stay alive. Pineapple Express is a blunt laced with camaraderie, friendship, and, yes, love.
( 1/2 out of four)
Pineapple Express is rated R for pervasive language, drug use, sexual references and violence. The running time is 1 hour and 52 minutes.
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