Film Reviews

Pineapple Express David Gordon Green

Rating - 8/10

Pineapple Express is a good name for many things.  For a stoner movie, which this is, suggesting exotic but mundane fruit and action!  Or at least frantic motion.  Action with a dash of flavor?  Yes.  This movie will end fast and taste sweet!  It does.  If Huey Lewis made an unrepentant stoner anthem, he might call it Pineapple Express.  With the News, Huey made that song for this film, and it rings as sweetly over the credit scroll as the Huey of the Back to the Future original soundtrack.  The theme is at least as funny as Patrick Bateman's analysis of the band in American Psycho.

Pineapple Express is the latest product of the Apatow factory, a nefarious house of comedy witches who have cunningly convinced the public that they are funny through the Druidic deception of steadily releasing work that is funnier than average most of the time.  While nurturing visual comedic prodigies/great writers such as Adam McKay (Talledega Nights, Anchorman), producer Judd Apatow has been dodging backlash (through mostly solid product, the R. Kelly strategy) since he was hysterically dubbed the new King of Comedy by all the most desperately relevant publications.

Some of the suspicion hovering around the suddenly successful Apatow may have to do with the aesthetic laziness/obtuseness of his own directorial efforts, The 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up.  Both triumph as movies on his finesse as a writer and as a director who can create an environment friendly to casual improv among a talented cast.  Unfortunately, his visual sense seems to extend only as far as arranging characters awkwardly in front of a staid background scene, only to recite his brilliant dialog well.  The actual writing quality is all that saves Apatow's films from sinking to Kevin Smith depths.  Apatow may be incapable of writing such pandering, awkward scripts.

Pineapple Express was not written by Judd Apatow.  He took a story credit with the two actual screenwriters, star Seth Rogen and writing partner Evan Goldberg.  It calls to mind a scene of Apatow barking high concepts and slapping his name on them immediately.

Lord Apatow:  Two potheads stumble into an action movie!  I did it!  I'm the King of Hollywood!  Rogen!  Goldberg!  Write it up for me!

Lil' Lord Rogen:  Sure doin', boss!

The temptation to resent/fellate the very successful is a demon that haunts me even in the day to day.  I do think that Apatow cares about cinema (and certainly comedy) as an art in a way Smith never will.  While Smith pulls the occasional sycophant, Apatow has actively backed the efforts of better film-makers such as McKay and Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall).

For Pineapple Express, notable perhaps as the most mass marketed and respectively discussed pot comedy yet, Apatow made a brave decision in hiring a director that suggests wild dissociative stoner ambition.  David Gordon Green is a masterful young moviemaker, previously making his name in small but emotionally epic rural dramas that evoke in their marriage of the transcendent and the commonplace the strange, sublime cinematic feelings of Terrence Malick.  The classics that began his career, George Washington and All The Real Girls, explored a semi-abstract North Carolina of desolate, daunting natural beauty and rusted, post-Industrial junk turned art/earth through the eyes of pure and naive characters undergoing the trials of life that are, once again, objectively commonplace but personally immense.

Gordon Green is not a self-contained reclusive voice like Malick, whose output he has already quantitatively eclipsed and whose influence he has already deviated from in Pineapple Express and Snow Angels (Undertow, which Malick actually produced, remains unseen by me).  By lending his eye and sensibility to Pineapple Express, Gordon Green expresses a desire to lend his gift to the pop world, and learn it from it.  It is a good marriage, and Pineapple Express plays like a best-case-scenario to that fabled Up In Smoke sequel that Tommy Chong tried to convince Malick to direct (imagine posters proudly declaring "The maker of Days In Heaven uplifts you again with Cheech and Chong's Next Movie").

Gordon Green's hand is most invisible, but most profoundly perfect for, the languor of casual stoner conversation and bonding that is more prominent in the film's first half.  Actually, the deft hand with which Gordon Green paints the tentative, blunted dialog of two stoners who happen to like each other has a ring that harmonizes retroactively with the simple, unhurried, philosophic and non-sequitur heavy conversations that paced his early films.  Perhaps the chronic endorsement resonates with Gordon Green, and he is a secret weed geek who gave himself his third name.

In a few wordless, musical sequences, let's call them "Amblin' Through The Woods" and "Dancing With Pubescent Drug Clients", Pineapple Express embodies the indie, art minded transcendence that Gordon Green traffics in.  Neither sequence advances the story, but instead luxuriates in the intangible feeling of a moment.  Perhaps the relaxed confines of the stoner comedy genre can be thanked that he was able to do these interludes in a his big Hollywood debut.  Each works swimmingly, hitting notes of unexpected beauty and dumb/elemental hilarity, making Gordon Green's fancy background a positive contribution to the idiom.

Rogen and James Franco, each gifted young comic actors, excel within the heightened universe of soulful mundanity Gordon Green fosters.  Franco, often cast (well, at least in the Spiderman films) as a dark heartthrob, flourishes as a gracefully and improbably beautiful dilapidated wastrel.  His constant buffoonery comes off, rather than as basic idiocy, as an open projection of a kind, vulnerable heart.  Franco is the first stoner clown to successfully immortalize himself as an underweight, eroticized rumpled teddy bear (a category Guinness has not started keeping tabs on).  His character's deepest trait is a loyal and unconditional love for his grandmother, and Franco is good enough to make that more real than treacly or manipulative.

Rogen, though the protagonist, has the misfortune to play next to such an iconic foil (believe me, based on the converging passionate audiences for marijuana, professional cult films, and badly dressed gorgeous boys, Franco's performance will be deeply felt by some for years to come, and he may have gotten Joker/Crow buzz had he tragically died before the release).  As the stoner who must wear a suit and oppress people for a job that is still pretty lowly, pointless and inconsequential, depressing to the point of clinging to his habit and a girlfriend in high school in order to retain his self-perception, Rogen must often play the straight asshole to Franco's idealized state of Grace (Franco so resembles a talented, tragic, pretty death that he has been cast as James Dean and often mentioned in speculation for a Jeff Buckley biopic).

In a blazed inversion, however, Rogen and his more relatable, prickly angst is constantly playing lead support to his own sidekick.  His less likable character, who is often even irritating, serves well as a counterpoint to Franco's pot Jesus.  When he relents from his neurotic tendency to shades of asshole and relaxes to Franco's exalted level, the results are viscerally rewarding.

Most of the disappointment I have gleaned from Pineapple Express has to do with the movie's Side B.  As the film becomes a more action-bound vehicle, many seem to feel the film deflate.  It is like a lazier cousin to the criticism of Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket.  Both are top to bottom great, but got bitched at upon release for a more violent and conventional second half that withered in comparison to a more singular and character based first half.

I argue that the second half, while cosmetically more frenetic (and generic), drags the characters, so well introduced already, through a treacherous tonal shift intact.  The participation in action movie tropes and heroics by these idiosyncratic drug devotees is the gag that drives the whole thing, chaotically but well.  The stoned digressions and tics are still there, just more and faster.  The way Gordon Green conducts mid-scale expensive action scenes in a way that seems ramshackle and personal while still delivering the action audience money shots is inspiring.

Maybe (certainly) Pineapple Express isn't revolutionary.  Maybe (probably) it is just a culmination of the Apatow business, which has been normalizing pot use and good comedy lately.  Pineapple Express is a fine film and a great, empathetic, unique comedy experience.  It lacks the immersive universe and tangled, faultless voice of it's fellow GradeAFilmGeniusDoesWeedMovie brother, The Big Lebowski by the Coen Brothers.  Pineapple Express, however, does deserve comparison to that landmark, as it also succeeds in artfully and singularly placing an amazing, heightened cast in the middle of a genrified universe they never had the ambition to create.  This is a pot movie that both stoners and cineastes will be toking for quite awhile.