Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Oh, It's Potent, Bro

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


Brandon Colvin said...

Bummer on the no comments.

Anonymous said...

I didn't enjoy it as much as you did, but the chemistry between Rogen and Franco is undeniable, and Franco's work in particular is really something special. Like everything I've seen from Apatow, though, the movie just gets bogged down with unnecessary scenes - I really wish he would trim the fat. The girlfriend subplot, selling weed to kids - to me, neither would be missed (though the confrontation between Rogen and Angie's parents is hilarious).

Also, the film takes a looooong time to get going. The first half hour or so is relatively amusing, but until the murder occurs, the film is basically biding its time.

All in all, I liked it, and I laughed a lot, but I was also underwhelmed. I'd give it a B-

Brandon Colvin said...

Fair enough. I kind of liked the meandering tangents, though. They felt kind of natural. I thought things started going downhill as the film progressed. It's funny that we would take such opposing views of when the film peaks. Maybe I was just in a time-biding mood when I saw it, or maybe the time-biding is an essential part of understanding the characters.

I will concede that the more the film settles with me, the less I like it. Most of the time, I can watch Apatow films over and over, but I'm not sure what the replay value on PINEAPPLE EXPRESS will be.

Anonymous said...

Generally speaking, I like it when films wander; I just didn't think it worked particularly well in this movie. But of course it all depends on your sense of humor. Rogen's costume shtick at the beginning didn't do much for me, same with Franco sitting watching TV - even though I thought Franco was by far the best thing in the movie. I can see WHY the movie has the loose feel to it, and it plays a bit like a bad trip - I just didn't buy all of it.

I also didn't get much out of the action movie last act. Some funny stuff, some shocking stuff, but to me the gems were the scenes between Rogen and Franco just hanging out or being stoned/paranoid.

The only Apatow film I've watched repeatedly is KNOCKED UP, which I still think is by far his best. VIRGIN didn't do much for me, SARAH MARSHALL was so so; I really liked SUPERBAD for what it was, but haven't felt the need to watch it since. I've had the same criticisms of all of them, even the ones I liked: too long, too much "fat." Generally, I like what he's doing, but I've never been blown away; and with how fast he seems to work, they're all starting to blur together.

Nostalgia Kinky said...

Terrific review Brandon and I loved it as well. I pretty much agree with everything you wrote here although ANCHORMAN remains my favorite Apatow production...
Rogan and Franco really shine (Franco might become some sort of comic legend judging from his work here) and I am psyched to see it again.
After being underwhelmed by SARAH MARSHALL and DRILLBIT TAYLOR, this film and the silly but very funny STEP-BROTHERS really restores my faith in the impressive Apatow machine.

Joel Bocko said...

In my review ( http://thedancingimage.blogspot.com/2008/08/pineapple-express.html ), I said that Green mostly seemed to be a gun-for-hire here; James told me to check out your analysis and I finally made it, so I was wondering, did you feel Green's influence extended beyond those few scenes where the characters just chill in the woods/parking lot?

Brandon Colvin said...

It depends on how you are defining Green as a filmmaker.

There is a difference between being a "gun-for-hire" and broadening one's horizons. I think that although PINEAPPLE EXPRESS may lack some of the trademark authorial touches found in Green's earlier films, it is in no way disingenuous and comes off as rather full of affection, passion, and gusto. Limiting and defining what Green's "influence" might be according to his previous work is reductive and inconsiderate of the obvious talent he has for directing comedy and action. Almost certainly, the film displays certain stylistic trademarks and techniques that would be clarified and revealed if Green were to make more films in the vein of PINEAPPLE EXPRESS. Defining such trends is really just a matter of time and repetition.

I think it's easy to criticize traditionally independent filmmakers who step into the box of mainstream filmmaking as having sold out or foregone their integrity, but I feel the decision to embrace Hollywood after making films like GEORGE WASHINGTON and UNDERTOW is brave. I think Green deserves credit for challenging himself and that critics should give him more time to reveal the full depth, variety, and complexity of his "influence" in the context of mainstream filmmaking before writing him off as a "gun-for-hire."

Joel Bocko said...

Perhaps the word choice was too strong, as I didn't intend to be entirely derogatory. However, it seemed that (despite a few touches here and there, the exceptions that prove the rule) Green was more or less offered up the standard directorial take on the material, at least in terms of his formal decisions.

Don't get me wrong: I don't think every film should be jazzed up with a personal "style"; often the best way to tell a story is the simplest. And a few directors, like Hawks, even managed to create a distinctive style through simple storytelling.

I have no problem with offbeat directors crossing into the mainstream - in fact I think it's fantastic, and wish there was more of it (besides, I wasn't such a huge fan of George Washington). But when they lose the very qualities which made them distinctive I don't really see the point (for us, not for them - they could be taking a breather, testing their basic skills, just having fun, etc.)

I can't see an auteur's mark on Green's work in Pineapple Express and I think that if he hadn't already established himself, few would notice anything too notable about the direction of Pineapple.

Rather than broadening his horizons, Green seems to have narrowed his here. Again, he doesn't need my or anyone else's permission to direct a movie; he can do whatever he wants and maintain his credibility. I'm more concerned with the larger picture, because this seems to be part of a trend: when lending your services to a studio picture, it becomes part of your duty to strip too many idiosyncracies from your approach - play it safe, and turn in work that isn't too distinctive.

I've only seen Pineapple once and could have missed the boat here; but on initial viewing I liked it because of the writing and - to be fair - the performances, which is part of Green's job. I thought it was well-directed, just nothing exceptional or especially unique.

James Hansen said...

I'll take a middle ground on Green as an auteur criticism (I don't think he's the AUTHOR, but I do think the director has the most important voice and no matter what, he's a damn excellent director...I just think the terminology matters)... maybe because of his directing gusto I don't think of PINEAPPLE EXPRESS as "safe". It has the makings of typical stoner comedy, sure, but I think both of your reviews highlight that the film runs away from expectations and into some new (dangerous?) territory. It has such a willingness to go in drastically differnet directions at a moments notice, and certainly asks for more from its audience than a typical Hollywood movie .

I also think that people forget how different GEORGE WASHINGTON, ALL THE REAL GIRLS, and UNDERTOW are...they are more visually similar because of location and style, but they are pretty different in every other way and each find their base in very different genres. I'd have to rewatch them to make a case for how they would talk about friendship, love, and relationships between people from varying places (something that I think is characteristic of all the films, PINEAPPLE EXPRESS included.) I think PE just takes off from the others in terms of the story so much that it's hard to notice those kind of similarities. I could also be totally wrong and there could be basically no similarities. Again, I'd have to watch them all over again...it's been way to long.