If there’s ever been a genre that critics have (rightfully) had no interest in praising, it’s the stoner comedy. Most of the films in that genre are incredibly lowbrow works, often madcap in nature, that have no interest in entertaining anyone outside of a selected niche. I am about as far from that niche as anyone can get, I’ve never been one to “party” and have little in common with the Cheeches and Kumars of the world. The genre’s low level of esteem made it all the more curious when I learned that David Gordon Green, a director known for dead serious films like Snow Angels, was making a stoner comedy with Seth Rogen. Seth Rogen and producer Judd Apatow have yet to disappoint me (though the fact that I haven’t seen Drillbit Taylor helps their track record), and David Gordon Green is a true artist. With all that talent behind the project it was enough to overcome my trepidation about the film’s genre and give the movie a shot, and I’m glad I did because this is yet another quality comedy from team Apatow.
The film follows Dale Denton (Seth Rogen), a twenty-something process server who spends most of his free time getting stoned out of his mind. On a break from serving people subpoenas Dale goes to his dealer Saul Silver (James Franco), who’s even more of a stoner type than Dale. Saul introduces Dale to Pineapple Express, a new strain of weed that Saul describes as “the dopest dope I’ve ever smoked.” Dale is impressed by this new pot and buys some before leaving to serve another subpoena, this time to someone named Ted Jones (Gary Cole), a name Saul recognizes as that of the local drug distribution lord. Dale arrives at Ted’s house only to find himself the witness to the brutal murder through the window of his car. In a rush to escape Dale drops one of the Pineapple Express blunts he just bought on the ground and drives off. Realizing that Ted could track that dropped blunt back to Saul, Dale and Saul decided to go on the run to escape Ted’s wrath.
Pineapple Express differs from the stoner comedy in a number of ways. Most stoner comedies have a very clear focus in their jokes about the sheer quantity of marijuana the characters smoke, there’s none of that here. In fact there’s not really that much onscreen smoking here after the first act, just a certain knowledge that the characters are acting under the influence through much of the film’s duration. There are also no hallucinatory images illustrated here, while there are certainly unrealistic elements (and a strange prologue), these are all more a matter of comedic anarchy than drug induced hallucinations. Here the drugs aren’t really the source of the humor, rather it is the stupid behavior caused by the drugs that are the film’s main joke. In the long run the stoner categorization is a red herring, the film’s humor has more in common with Judd Apatow’s other slacker comedies like Knocked Up, except that reefer is a bit more emphasized as the source of said slackerdom.
It’s not just the stoner comedy genre that this film differentiates itself from, it’s far more ambitious technically than 90% of studio comedies. The conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that there’s no need to put serious talent behind comedies because the jokes and the actors should be able to shoulder the film. This is an understandable position given the horrible results that often face huge budget comedies like Evan Almighty, and with people like Kevin Smith able to bring the laughs on a shoestring there seems to be little need to put real money into this kind of movie, as a result studio comedies tend to be directed by solid but anonymous directors like Adam McKay and Nicholas Stoller.
Pineapple Express is by no means a large budget production, but it’s not a thrown together affair either, mainly because David Gordon Green is no Adam McKay. Green is a director who has established major indie credibility with subtle lyrical films like George Washington and All the Real Girls, his work is characterized by long lingering takes and a down to earth connection with working class characters. This is his mainstream premiere, and he wisely avoids a lot of the slow lyricism which would have been completely out of place in a movie like this, but he has kept his astute visual eye and technical craft. He and his longtime cinematographer Tim Orr seem to be taking this production just as seriously as they took Snow Angels. The looser feel of this movie has more in common with Green’s less famous 2004 film Undertow than it does with All the Real Girls, but unlike that 2004 film which never seemed sure what it wanted to be, this is a very focused affair; it wants to make the audience laugh while also telling a coherent story.
Seth Rogen is on autopilot here, but that’s not really a bad thing, I like his shtick and it works for his character here. He’s really playing a straight man of sorts to James Franco’s character who’s the biggest slacker yet to grace a Judd Apatow movie. Franco’s character sports very long unkempt hair and a t-shirt with a cat in a shark’s mouth. I might be so bold as to call this the best stoner on film since Jeff Bridges immortal performance as The Dude in the Coen brothers opus The Big Lebowski. The duo has a definite chemistry with Saul representing a more traditional stoner and Dale being closer to the kind of relatively functioning stoner of other Apatow productions. I can’t say the supporting cast is as good as the core duo, Gary Cole and Rosie Perez both work well enough as villains, but neither are particularly memorable. Also present are a pair of henchmen played by Craig Robinson and Kevin Corrigan who were decent, but again not particularly memorable. There is however a great pair of small roles for Ed Begley Jr. and Nora Dunn that provide some of the film’s best laughs.
Another major aspect of the film is the way it mixes the stoner comedy genre with some chaotic action scenes. The action scenes share a certain affinity with last year’s Hot Fuzz, except they are not being done to parody Hollywood action films; they’re there more out of a certain comedic anarchy, to put these hugely unambitious stoners into extreme situations. There’s also a real danger to the violence here, people do die in the movie and the main characters shoot to kill when they’re placed in danger toward the end. Unfortunately there are mixed results in the violence department here. There’s a spectacular comedic car chase midway through with James Franco getting his foot caught in the windshield of a cop car. The films finale on the other hand, while good, simply goes on way too long.
It’s obvious that David Gordon Green’s goal going in was to work on a mainstream field without sacrificing his independent standards of quality and to make the ultimate stoner comedy in the process. On the first count he succeeded, his style has been altered appropriately to work for the film he’s making, but Hollywood hasn’t forced him to compromise. He also just might have succeeded at making the ultimate stoner comedy as well were it not for the existence of The Big Lebowski. In final analysis, this is an Apatow film with a much heavier hitter behind the camera, if Superbad and Knocked Up rocked your world the way it rocked mine you’ll have a whole lot of fun with this.
***1/2 out of four