Saturday, February 14, 2009

Pineapple Express (Columbia, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie I ran Charles last night was Pineapple Express, another accidental acquisition for my DVD collection (it was a Columbia House “director’s selection” that I must not have been on line at the right time to tell them not to send me) but which turned out to be a lot of fun. It’s a comedy from the Judd Apatow stable — a set of films I’d avoided until now because I’d heard they were mostly straight male-bonding films with a doggedly sexist streak and the kinds of offensive potty and puke gags that have put me off most recent “comedies,” but this one, though there was a puke gag in it, was genuinely funny at least often enough to be entertaining.

It’s a spoof of marijuana and drug-soaked crime thrillers that begins with an eccentric sequence set in 1937 (and shot in black-and-white) in which the U.S. government is testing exotic grades of pot on servicemembers, and when one of the test subjects tells the researchers in no uncertain terms how the stuff makes him feel about his superior officers (let’s just say here that it reinforces his already low opinion of them), the Army brass running the tests chant out in unison the word, “ILLEGAL!,” thereby signaling their intention to ban the substance and seal up their test facility so no one can ever get at this high-grade stuff again.

Flash-forward to the present, and we meet our principals: Dale Denton (Apatow regular Seth Rogen, who co-wrote the story with Apatow and executive producer Evan Goldberg and co-wrote the script with Goldberg), who makes a grungy but decent living as a process server and has his pot and his high-school (but already 18, we’re solemnly informed so the filmmakers don’t get the underage-sex Thought Police on their backs) girlfriend Angie (Amber Heard). Just what this nice-looking blonde with a retinue of genuinely hot fellow students surrounding her sees in an overweight stoner schlub like Dale is unfathomable, but hey, it’s only a movie, and a Judd Apatow movie at that, so we take it for granted.

Dale is supposed to meet Angie’s parents for dinner when he stops off at the home of his drug dealer, Saul Silver (James Franco in a genuine change-of-pace role; aside from being by far the most attractive male in the film, he’s a good foil for Rogen, essentially Abbott to his Costello), where he’s introduced to a high-grade sort of weed called Pineapple Express which supposedly no other dealer in L.A. (this is one film both shot in L.A. and set there) has — only the supply of Pineapple Express is supposed to be controlled by kingpin Ted Jones (Gary Cole) and his corrupt-cop girlfriend, Carol (Rosie Perez).

While driving with Saul, Dale sees Ted and Carol do a home invasion and gun someone down — the someone turns out to be part of a Chinese drug cartel who’d been trying to horn in on Ted’s business — and realize they’re in mortal danger, especially since while fleeing the scene (and crashing into two parked cars trying to get out of his own parking space) Dale threw down a roach containing Pineapple Express into the street and Ted picked it up, toked on it, realized what it was and guessed that his secret was out. From then the film is a pretty non-stop action sequence, as Ted sends two hit men — hunky African-American Matheson (Craig Robinson) and henpecked Jew Budlofsky (Kevin Corrigan), whose sole priority is to get the killings they’ve been hired to do over and done with quickly enough so he can make it back to his wife for dinner — to kill Dale and Saul, and they succeed in torturing Red (Danny R. McBride), the go-between in the drug sales chain between Ted and Saul, to find out Dale’s and Saul’s whereabouts.

There’s a great slapstick sequence involving a car chase Mack Sennett would have been proud of — in a modern wrinkle on the old gags, Saul is hit by Dale’s car and ends up spilling Slurpee all over its windshield, making it impossible to see where he’s driving; when Dale suggests Saul kick a hole in the windshield, Saul does so but his foot gets stuck in it, he’s uncomfortable and he still can’t see. The bits of slapstick are the funniest parts of the movie; much of the rest is sufficiently dark it qualifies as black comedy, and the film ends in a nicely staged action climax at the abandoned U.S. pot farm from the 1937 framing sequence, which had been taken over by Ted, who apparently used their surviving stock of seeds to grow his Pineapple Express and various other exotic flavors of grass.

Director David Gordon Green does a deft job of combining the brutal drug-war elements of the Apatow-Rogen-Goldberg script with the gags — the ending sequence could have been appallingly brutal (especially since the script calls for Dale to get part of his ear shot off by one of Ted’s assassins) but instead it’s kept relatively light and our focus remains on Our (Anti-)Heroes and whether and how they will survive the ordeal. I still don’t think movie comedies today even come close to the (relatively) innocent merriment of either the best silent comedies or the screwball and slapstick classics from the 1930’s — though Stranger than Fiction and Kabluey made me laugh and Kabluey came the closest of any film made in the past 20 years or so to recapturing the infectious spirit of silent comedy as well as the otherwise lost art of building gag upon gag upon gag into an irresistibly infectious sequence — and Pineapple Express often seems like a retread of a Cheech and Chong movie (indeed, one could readily imagine them doing virtually the same story in the 1970’s), but on its own terms it’s engaging and often laugh-out-loud funny.