Last summer’s Superbad was written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg when they were thirteen. Their new one, Pineapple Express, could’ve been written when they were twelve. In fits and starts, that’s a good thing. Pineapple Express is an intentionally unstable mix of two vastly different elements — the slacker-stoner comedy and the violent drug-runner action movie. Even the title — referring to a particularly potent blend of marijuana — is bifurcated: the first word suggesting relaxation and tropical drinks, the second evoking the paranoid busted-for-possession drama Midnight Express. The result is an odd but intermittently pleasing experiment that might lose stoners with its gore and action fans with its glazed, circular weed chat.
Dale Denton (Rogen) is a scruffy process server who tokes on and off the job; his dealer is Saul (James Franco), who sits in his apartment all day watching two TVs and hoping for some worthy company. Dale witnesses a drug killing, and the two go on the run; they can’t go to the police because one of the killers (Rosie Perez) is a cop. The movie, directed by indie-film critics’ darling David Gordon Green in a radical change of pace from quiet dramas like George Washington and All the Real Girls, follows these two shambling nitwits as they flail through a paranoid nightmare, a stoners’ worst-case scenario.
Bill Murray once told Roger Ebert that he knew movies were changing when he saw a comedy that featured someone getting shot and smearing blood across a mirror. “I thought, wait a second, this isn’t comedy. This is something different,” Murray said. Pineapple Express, and next week’s even more brutal Tropic Thunder, are the latest examples of that something different: black comedies in which people die graphically and you aren’t expected to care. The blood is spilled as casually as Saul’s Slurpee across a cop’s windshield; people are crushed by flaming cars, have chunks of their ears shot off, are shot multiple times yet still inexplicably walk around. If I’m in the mood to see someone faffing about with a severed flap of ear, I’ll go to a horror movie. Or an emergency room.
Rogen and Franco make a classic comedy duo: the (relatively) straitlaced, uptight guy — well, he has a job anyway — and the hapless cretin. Dale, however, is so immature he’s dating a high-school girl (Amber Heard), while Saul is only into selling pot to save enough money to provide for his beloved grandma. Pretty much everyone onscreen is pathetic in some way, and Rogen and Goldberg try to breathe quirky life into some of the characters, like the bickering hit men pursuing our heroes, one of whom wants to be done with this whole dirty business so he can go home and have dinner with his wife for once. Judd Apatow produced Pineapple Express (yep, here’s yet another Apatow thing), but unlike most Apatow comedies, this one doesn’t deliver its childish heroes into respectable lives with good women; indeed, it rejects that altogether in favor of bromance.
I laughed a few times, mainly at the desperately klutzy quality of some of the violence. A fight between Dale and Saul’s dealer Red (Danny McBride) practically takes out the entire apartment; the choreography must have been very precise (or Rogen and McBride would probably be dead) but looks realistically ramshackle. And some of the comic friction between the many pairs of characters in the film pays off nicely: Rosie Perez and Gary Cole (as the murderous drug dealer) are the unlikeliest sexy partners in crime since Kelly Lynch and Sam Rockwell in Charlie’s Angels. But I was still left feeling nonplussed and unsatisfied. The experiment doesn’t work, especially when, like Hot Fuzz, it devolves into gunfire and explosions. Special effects and stunt people take over, and the comedy suffocates in the din. It may be Rogen and Goldberg’s idea of a really cool way to end a stoner comedy, but then I think of the blockbusters of the last two decades and how they’ve fostered young filmmakers’ ideas of what’s really cool — things blow up! Lots of people die! — and it gets a little depressing.