Putting a violent spin on the “Superbad” formula (envelope-pushing raunch plus unexpectedly sweet affirmations of male friendship), “Pineapple Express” emerges as a fitfully funny, tonally trippy but not entirely satisfying effort from the Judd Apatow comic fraternity. Featuring Seth Rogen and a scene-stealing James Franco as two pot-addled losers on the run from a ruthless dealer, director David Gordon Green’s first mainstream venture is an unruly, literally half-baked hybrid of bloody hijinks and stoner laughs. A well-earned R rating shouldn’t keep auds from riding this “Express” train to a quick summer high, with endless potential for dope-enhanced viewing on DVD.
In a considerable departure from such melancholy mood-pieces as “George Washington” and “All the Real Girls,” indie auteur Green here displays a thoroughly commercial sensibility that nonetheless benefits from his knack for tonal experimentation and strong visual sense. This is certainly one of the better-looking efforts to come off the Apatow assembly line, composed in crisp widescreen images by d.p. Tim Orr, whose poetic lensing in Green’s previous films helped earn the director comparisons to Terrence Malick.
But production values are somewhat beside the point when the movie in question is more “Harold & Kumar” than “Badlands.” Scripted by the “Superbad” team of Rogen and Evan Goldberg, this rambunctious paean to pot retains the trademark Apatow sweetness even as it careens from messy vulgarisms to even messier violence.
As chubby schlub Dale Denton, Rogen offers a slightly more presentable version of the chubby schlub he played in “Knocked Up.” When he’s not delivering court subpoenas or romancing barely legal high schooler Angie (Amber Heard), Dale buys weed from Saul Silver (Franco) — a long-haired layabout who, in an amusingly protracted sequence of smoking and shooting the breeze with Dale, immediately wins over the audience with his affable, perpetually stoned demeanor and often hilarious non sequiturs.
While Dale tries to keep the relationship strictly professional, Saul likes his client enough to sell him some Pineapple Express, a high-grade form of marijuana so rare that, in Saul’s words, “it’s almost a shame to smoke it; it’s like killing a unicorn.” So rare, in fact, that when Dale witnesses a murder committed by evil drug lord Ted Jones (Gary Cole) and leaves behind a joint while fleeing the scene, Ted almost immediately traces the half-smoked doobie back to Saul.
Now on the run from Ted’s goons (Kevin Corrigan and Craig Robinson), Dale and Saul embark on a long, weird, pot-fueled odyssey that serves up plenty of slapstick antics and gruesome misadventures in between requisite bouts of male bonding. From a fierce scuffle with Saul’s traitorous buddy Red (Danny McBride) to a mortifying first encounter with Angie’s parents (Ed Begley Jr., Nora Dunn), Green repeatedly pushes druggy banter and awkward exchanges past the point of discomfort into full-throttle aggression; in addition to its many nasty instances of stabbing, shooting, groin-kicking and head-smashing, the pic offers perhaps the most graphic case of ear mutilation since “Reservoir Dogs.”
Beyond that, neither the comedy nor the carnage warrant further Quentin Tarantino comparisons. Some choice lines aside, too much of the humor is predicated on the notion that watching others get high is inherently funny (unless the viewer happens to be in a similar state, it’s not). And while its genre-blurring may seem audacious by studio standards, in the end, “Pineapple Express” still feels too safe, too constrained by buddy-comedy uplift, to have any real bite. Ironically, the stakes seemed higher, the test of the central duo’s bond more wrenching, in the far less eventful “Superbad.”
At the same time, the pic’s feel-good aura is undeniably part of its appeal, rooted in the chemistry of its two leads. As the more rational, stressed-out Dale, Rogen makes a perfectly panicky foil to Franco, who delivers a hugely likable turn as a genial bum who’s lonely at heart and loyal to the core. McBride also scores laughs as the corruptible but surprisingly resilient Red.
Pic comes saddled with a cautionary warning against pot — specifically, its effects on the arrested male adolescents that will make up its target demo — that feels both appropriate and a bit disingenuous. Aside from some playful scene transitions and a 1937-set prologue shot in lustrous black-and-white, the pro tech package shows little of Green’s signature retro style.