We all have nights in our past that have become legendary in their telling, nights out with friends that grow epic the more the story is repeated. Nights where we felt like anything could happen and even though anything might not have, the mythology is that it did. Few of us get to make movies about such nights, however, and now writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have managed to pull off two. First was Superbad, their high school comedy about boys on a quest to get laid; second on deck, the new film Pineapple Express. While a stranger animal than its predecessor, more adult and more all over the place, Pineapple Express proves Rogen and Goldberg have more than one hit in them, and it continues the impressive winning streak of Judd Apatow as a producer.
Pineapple Express hinges on one night, but it's actually more like the longest 48 hours in the life of process server and marijuana aficionado Dale Denton (Rogen) and his goofy dealer Saul (James Franco, probably best known as Harry Osborne in the Spider-Man movies). Working a late evening trying to serve a subpoena, Dale witnesses an Asian hitman being murdered by a drug trafficker (Gary Cole) and a dirty cop on his payroll (Rosie Perez). It's a scene straight out of Cassavetes, even down to the ridiculously designed California home. Pineapple Express is the Killing of a Chinese Bookie of marijuana comedies--both naturalistic and improbable, its narrative strangely fractured but somehow coming together anyway.
In a panic, Dale tosses his ever-present joint out the window, leaving a trail for the killer to find. It turns out that the bad guy, Ted, is the man two rungs up the ladder from Saul, and the only inventory of a special strain of pot called Pineapple Express to trickle down the food chain has gone to Saul. Recognizing his wares, Ted sends a couple of thugs (Kevin Corrigan and The Office's Craig Robinson) down the supply line, putting the stoned pair on the run for their lives.
Much of the humor of Pineapple Express is derived from Dale and Saul trying to put together a plan and then execute it. Saul's fuzzy logic fuels Dale's paranoia and the two end up lost in the woods, locked in a car chase while driving a stolen police cruiser, and being chased by the shotgun-wielding father of Dale's underage girlfriend. (The angry daddy is a hilarious cameo by Ed Begley Jr.) The film is directed by David Gordon Green, whose previous four features have all been realistic dramas shot in a sparse, understated style. (His most recent work was Snow Angels, one of the best films of the year.) In his first comedic turn, Green manages to adapt his leisurely, 1970s verite style to the stoner comedy. It turns out his southern drawl storytelling is perfectly suited to capture the cannabis haze. The same skill that allows him to guide actors through emotionally wrenching scenes in his dramas allows him to create a comfortable space for Rogen and Franco to operate in, and Green lets their scenes run long, giving them the time to work their magic on the dialogue.
Fans of Freaks and Geeks will enjoy seeing Rogen and Franco back together again. While Rogen has been showing his comedy chops in movies like Knocked Up over the last couple of years, Franco has largely been making overly earnest dramas. It's fun to see him cut loose, and he relishes the language of Rogen and Goldberg's script, getting more comedy out of subtly mis-chosen words than a lot of comedians get out of perfectly structured jokes. With his laid-back manner and Rogen's manic anxiety, the two actors form a classic comic duo, like Abbot and Costello, Spade and Farley, and other skinny/fat comedy teams. The proceedings also spark up every time the guys run into Red (Danny R. McBride, The Foot Fist Way), the middle-man between Saul and Ted. Sexually ambiguous, Buddhist, and altogether absurd, Red is an hysterical third wheel, alternating between jokes both rude and oddly calming.
As the plot of Pineapple Express progresses, the script's ADD should have caused the film to derail at some point. David Gordon Green keeps control, though, and he is able to jump from the broad satire of the movie's cold opening to buddy humor and then to slapstick without ever faltering. There are some knock-down, drag-out brawls in this movie that will have you cringing even while you laugh. Seth Rogen taking a flying ash tray to the head is comedy gold, as is James Franco driving a cop car with his foot sticking out the windshield. By the final act, when the convoluted storylines of Ted's war with the Asian drug cartel converges with the hunt for Dale and Saul, all logic is tossed out the window and Green just goes for it. Pineapple Express turns into a free-for-all parody of action comedies, comparable to Hot Fuzz for the sheer geeky detail of the farce. The fight goes on forever, the gun supply is unlimited, and the script even makes fun of its own lack of definition (no one knows what nationality "the Asians" really are, they are just Asian). Some might sniff that the giant shootout that takes up the whole last quarter of the movie is an immature excuse for a bunch of friends to goof around with guns and play-fight, but that conveniently ignores that this is the point entirely. Pineapple Express is about friendship, sticking together, and having a laugh while you do all the crazy stuff you would never do if the other guy wasn't egging you on.
When it's done poorly, pot humor can grow old quick, but Pineapple Express transcends the whole "dude, I have the munchies/my fingers are huuuuuge" norm and just goes gonzo. It practically invents its own genre, a Dadaist mash-up of B action movies and bawdy comedies that those of us who grew up in the '80s saw time and time again in heavy rotation on cable. Written smartly, directed with an assured style, and performed by some of the best comedians of our day, this Pineapple Express takes off like a shot and strikes every target. Get your tickets now.