Thursday, August 21, 2008

'Pineapple Express': Stoner comedy with an edge

Thirty years after Cheech and Chong gave birth to the stoner comedy, we have “Pineapple Express” — an audacious blend of the stoner buddy comedy with the action buddy comedy that, while hardly perfect, is very funny. And you don’t even need to be under the influence of a certain illegal substance to enjoy it.

It seems like every other comedy released in the last couple years is either directed, co-written, or co-produced by Judd Apatow. The better Apatow films mix crude humor with surprising sweetness. “40-Year Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up,” “Superbad” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” remain the best of the Apatow branding because, for all their scatological humor, there are moments that feel genuine and relatable.

“Pineapple Express” is among the stronger Apatow productions, but is more abrasive than some of the above titles. All Apatow films have language that could shock the easily offended, but “Pineapple Express” adds some brutal violence to the mix that at times sits uneasily next to the comedy.

The set-up is pretty simple. A pothead process server named Dale (Seth Rogan, “Knocked Up’) sees a drug lord (Gary Cole, “Office Space”) and crooked cop (Rosie Perez, “White Men Can’t Jump”) murder someone. Dale drops a joint of extremely rare marijuana — the Pineapple Express of the title — at the scene of the crime that links him to his drug dealer Saul (James Franco, the “Spider-Man” movies), and thus the duo must go on the run.

Even though this is a stoner comedy, there is certain level intelligence here that raises it above the bar of other films of the same ilk. A lot of movies featuring potheads automatically make them stupid, but like the recent “Harold and Kumar” movies, Dale and (maybe) Saul are actually pretty smart. They are just unmotivated and perpetually high.

The film’s quality is increased by its director David Gordon Green. This is Green's first mainstream film. His previous works were introspective independent films like “George Washington,” “Undertow” and “Snow Angels” that lyrically searched through the human condition.

Green may seem like an odd match to this material, but he brings an unforced quality to many of the scenes. He stages a car chase that deserves to be in a comedy time capsule. I don’t doubt it was all on the page, but kudos to Green for making it work on the screen. There is also a silent scene of Dale and Saul frolicking in the woods that is absolutely hilarious, but also beautifully shot.

Although the film works, you need to have a taste for the subversive. If the idea of the 25-year-old Dale dating a barely legal high schooler (Amber Heard) makes you cringe, this probably isn’t the movie for you. If a scene of Dale and Saul selling pot to middle school kids on school property makes you red in the face with anger, this is definitely not the movie for you.

For those not bothered by marijuana, then an enjoyable time can be found hanging out with Dale and Saul. They are amicably played by Rogan and Franco who are able to elicit laughs with just facial expressions. Their conversations, though dazed and confused, are more sharply written by Rogan and his writing partner Evan Goldberg than in most stoner comedies.

Franco, who isn’t known for his comedic talents, creates quite possibly the funniest pothead since Sean Penn’s Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” His line delivery and timing are right on the mark. Franco’s chemistry with Rogan is easy-going and fun. Their relationship, like in any good buddy film, holds the movie together.

The rest of the cast is good too, although at times uneven. The villains, including a pair of bickering hit men played by Kevin Corrigan and Craig Robinson, alternate between being cartoonish and serious.

Danny McBribe, as Saul’s middleman who reluctantly teams up with Dale and Saul, appears on the film’s poster as if he was a third lead, but he is really only a supporting character. McBribe has a funny fight scene with Dale and Saul, and the film’s closing scene with the trio chatting in a diner ends the film on a high note. No pun intended. I swear.

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