As pot comedies go, Pineapple Express is one of the best. It delivers several genuine laughs and doesn't rely (completely) on stoned reaction shots to get them. But considering that this pronouncement really only puts the film in higher standing than Dude, Where's My Car? and various Cheech and Chong installments makes that statement looks less complimentary than one might hope for.
Yet another summertime widget of gleeful obscenity and disarming male vulnerability to come out of the Judd Apatow comedy factory -- Apatow had the original idea, while Superbad's Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg wrote the script -- Pineapple Express comes with high expectations, not all of which are dashed. While much of Apatow's previous work has focused on the perils of sex or the camaraderie of social outcasts, this film comes with more of a standard-issue plot that harkens back, mostly in unfortunate ways, to the action-comedy hybrids that ruled the multiplex back in the 1980s. Only this time, the main characters are stoned; cue fetishized shots of bulging baggies of ripe green buds, gigantic bongs (this film's piece d'resistance is called the Bong Mitzvah, hails from Tel Aviv, and proves useful in hand-to-hand combat), and a massive pot cultivation operation that shimmers in the characters' imaginations like El Dorado.
It's not to say that basing an entire film around the old Guy Witnesses a Murder scenario can't seem anything but hackneyed these days, but original it isn't. And so when schlubby pothead process server Dale (Rogen) inadvertently sees a gangster and his crooked cop partner (Gary Cole and Rosie Perez) gun a man down, he flails in panic and goes on the run, dragging along his perpetually stoned dealer Saul (James Franco). Rogen and Franco make for a genuinely engaging matched pair, particularly given their near-permanently addled states of mind. The real heart of the script is actually in the tight bond that the two develop, leading to several confrontations and heart-to-hearts that are as touching as they are willfully homoerotic. As in most buddy comedies, women are conspicuously absent here, and considering that Dale's girlfriend is actually still in high school (a funny and unexpected twist), this leaves more than the average share of comedic possibilities on the floor. But instead of playing around more with Dale and Saul's burgeoning friendship, the overlong script keeps circling back to their shambling escapes from danger and excessive gunplay.
The action and comedy mix has never been an easy one to manage, and unfortunately Pineapple Express fails in that respect almost completely. The problem is one of tone, and the film seems to get the mix right when Saul sees the first murder, a quick and brutal affair. But after that, as the arsenal of weaponry increases, and a subplot develops with a rival Asian gang, the whole affair practically turns into a bad action film. A lot of blame here can be leveled at the script, which doesn't trust its audience enough to think they won't be bored without all the violence.
But some blame has to go as well to David Gordon Green, whose beautifully brooding earlier work (Snow Angels, George Washington) makes him a particularly poor choice as director for a drug comedy. Like Doug Liman with Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Green thinks he's mocking action-film excess (see all the purposefully overdone slo-mo work with blazing automatic weapons in the overextended finale) but really he's just making another bad action movie. Green knows what he's doing when it comes to choosing and directing his cast, who all perform at the top of their game here, in particular the wonderfully easygoing Franco, not to mention Kevin Corrigan and Craig Robertson, who somehow squeeze more juice out of the old bickering hitmen cliché. But mostly, instead of trying something new, the filmmakers retreat to the past. It's lazy sneering, and that attitude nearly ruins a perfectly good comedy. I can't believe I'm saying this, but maybe more bong jokes would have helped.
On second thought, let's don't keep on going.