The latest production from Judd Apatow and His Band of Hilarious Motherfuckers, Pineapple Express, is a willfully genre-bending work comprised of such disparate elements as pot(ty) humor, (b)romance, fleeting lyricism (seriously), and extremely violent bursts of over-the-top (though often realistic) action. Helmed by indie veteran/heir to the Throne of Malick, David Gordon Green, and shot by Green’s longtime cinematographer, Tim Orr, Pineapple Express is not only bold in its risky melding and wry lampooning of multiple genres, but it is also the most aesthetically memorable and technically outstanding of all the Apatow productions thus far. Green’s direction is certainly not the sole source of the film’s effectiveness though – far from it. The hysterical screenplay by Superbad writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg oozes vivacious freshness when read by the film’s two spectacular leads – Rogen and James Franco – who both give iconic performances, particularly in the case of Franco as the lovable drug dealer, Saul Silver, whose purchase and subsequent distribution of a rare strand of weed known as “Pineapple Express” creates a fattie-sized McGuffin that gets the film rolling (please tell me you caught that). In fact, the only real problems in Pineapple Express occur when Rogen and Franco are off-screen, during which time the absence of their energetic chemistry and propulsive charisma is definitely noticeable – even if you’re stoned.
Pineapple Express begins harmlessly enough. Dale Denton (Rogen), a 25-year-old process server, ganja lover, and talk-radio aficionado is introduced through a humorous montage as a reluctant asshole who puts forth effort to inject a certain amount of flavor and creativity (via costumes) into his otherwise bloodless job. Dale’s immaturity, a staple of Apatow characterization, is revealed by the fact that he dates an 18-year-old high school girl, Angie (Amber Heard), and relishes in the slackerdom afforded by his job, rounding him out as another loveable goofball in a long line of lovable, if not always respectable, goofballs. However, even Dale feels superior to Franco’s greasy-haired, rerun-watching pot pusher, who may in fact be the sweetest character crafted by Apatow and the gang. Seeking to make friends, Saul offers Dale exclusive access to the aforementioned “Pineapple Express” marijuana, urging him to stay awhile and toke a “cross joint” – the holy grail of getting high. All goes smoothly and sedately, until Dale unwittingly witnesses a murder, committed by local drug kingpin and object of Dale’s latest serving assignment, Ted Jones (Gary Cole), and his dirty cop accomplice, Carol (Rosie Perez). During his fit of homicide induced hysteria, Dale drops an easily traceable sample of Saul’s rare marijuana, enabling Ted Jones to eventually put out a hit on both protagonists and turning Dale and Saul into hyper-paranoid bros-on-the-run.
Needless to say, the film’s premise leaves room for some jarring genre mixing and Green and co. take full advantage of and relish in these opportunities. Not only does Pineapple Express ratchet up the quality of the standard stoner banter in drug films, it also incorporates a positive appraisal of what is certainly homosocial, if not homosexual, behavior, and embraces a style of action that accentuates both jolting realism and parodic extravagance. The film essentially has multiple cakes – and it eats all of them at the same time, contrary to the popular adage, and, without a doubt, contrary to many moviegoers’ expectations, including mine. The juxtaposition of pothead levity and brutal death is admittedly confusing for those accustomed to the unspoken, yet rigorous, limitations of conventional genre (that being most of us), particularly when mixed with more than a dash of man-on-man eroticism. Pineapple Express is one of the few films in which the gore is consistently cringe-cringeworthy, but which also has the chutzpa to indulge in straight-up slapstick, including one memorable incident involving a deadly Daewoo, manned by Red (Danny McBride), one of Saul’s fellow dealers whose allegiances flip flop on a dime and whose absolute dorkdom provides numerous laughs, not to mention plot complications.
Keenly, David Gordon Green is careful to alternate cinematographic and editing styles throughout Pineapple Express, in addition to alternating genres and tones. Green strikes a balance between his characteristic moments of poetic inspiration and the demands of Hollywood convention. The filmmaking style ranges from moments that could fit into Green’s George Washington (2000) or All the Real Girls (2003), including a scene in which Dale and Saul frolic through sun-drenched woods like young lovers and a brief series of stunning lyrical landscape shots that precede the film’s hilariously self-referential breakfast-time coda, to the brisk editing rhythms and playful zooms of the film’s numerous fight sequences and shoot-outs, which illustrate Green’s understanding of mainstream aesthetics in a way that brings to mind the work of Edgar Wright. Green’s unique perspective makes Pineapple Express a Hollywood film that exudes both outsider freshness and relaxed familiarity, establishing a precedent that may enable more indie auteurs to cross over into Apatow-like territory.
Even though Green’s guidance is stellar, the real hands that pack Pineapple Express together (yes, like a bowl) belong to Rogen and Franco. The two actors’ shenanigans are endlessly watchable and their magnetism is undeniable. Not only is Rogen’s ability to carry a film cemented, but Franco’s future in comedy is also illuminated by the laugh-out-loud camaraderie between Pineapple Express’s stars, particularly during their well-crafted dialogue scenes. When the two of them disappear from the frame for more than 3 seconds, however, the film reveals just how dependent its success is on the dynamic duo. When the drug war subplot (resulting from confusion over just who Dale and Saul are working for – which is actually nobody) is given too much attention, the script loses focus and much of its edge and the movie sags considerably, particularly during the explosive finale. Hopefully, Rogen and Franco will be teamed up more regularly, a la Ferrell and Reilly, and Green will continue cranking out more mainstream fare – I know I could definitely use a second hit.
by Brandon Colvin