Over the past several months, one promising comedy after another has failed to live up to expectations. From the forgettable Forgetting Sarah Marshall and the Farrellys’ pointless update of The Heartbreak Kid to anything with Will Ferrell in it since Talladega Nights, the latest efforts from Hollywood’s most reliable laugh masters have consistently proved half baked. The new movie from the folks who brought you Superbad is totally baked. But in this case, that’s a good thing.
Seth Rogen and writing partner Evan Goldberg have teamed up with producer Judd Apatow and indie director David Gordon Green (George Washington) to engineer an entirely new strain of motion picture: the stoner action comedy. Rogen, who I’d say is fast approaching national treasure status, also costars in the role of a twentysomething process server with a trunkful of disguises, a girlfriend who’s still in high school and a fondness for herb.
Early in the film, this fondness necessitates a pop-in at the disheveled pad of his dealer, played by James Franco. The role is a departure for the young actor best known for his portrayal of sensitive, brooding types. He reinvents himself here as a blissfully fried man-child while unveiling comedy chops that are the equal of any Apatow troupe member’s.
In the key setup scene, Franco offers to sell Rogen some Pineapple Express, a new superweed his supplier has just given him exclusive rights to purvey. It’s a hilarious sequence that establishes the movie’s comic tone. The dealer, for example, muses giddily that his new stash is almost too precious to smoke: Doing so is like “killing a unicorn.”
Shortly thereafter, parked outside the home of the last person he has to serve that day, Rogen enjoys a toke and finds himself witnessing an actual killing. On the other side of a glass wall, an Asian man in a suit is shot to death by a female police officer and a crazed-looking fellow in a bathrobe. They in turn witness Rogen tossing his roach out the car window and speeding away. And he would’ve got away clean, had the gunman not been the guy who sold Franco the Pineapple Express.
He’s a drug lord played by Gary Cole, and with one sniff of the spliff he knows where to go. Fortunately for the doobie brothers, Rogen is one step ahead of him. He and Franco go on the lam (“Bring only essential supplies — snacks, Fruit Roll-Ups!”) and, for the next hour-plus, attempt to elude the hitmen Cole sends after them.
Like any proper stoner film, Pineapple Express isn’t so much about plot as it is about non sequitur and creative digression. One minute the two buds are running for their lives. The next they’re parked deep in a forest reserve, lighting up and speculating about the methods the crime boss might employ to track them (“heat-seeking missiles . . . barracuda”). Naturally, they get so high they forget to turn off the car’s lights before they fall asleep, so the next day they’re forced to run for their lives on foot.
Almost by accident, they wind up at the home of Rogen’s teenaged girlfriend (Amber Heard) the night after he was supposed to come for a meet-the-parents dinner. Filthy, bleeding, stoned and believing he has the date right, he makes a gutbustingly unfavorable impression. Mom and Dad are even less taken with him after he advises them to vacate the premises at once and seek shelter at a motel under an assumed name to protect their daughter from the killers following close behind.
The movie’s final act mixes comedy and graphic violence in a way I’m not sure we’ve witnessed before. The one-liners fly and continue to hit their marks, as do some of the bullets that hail from all directions when Rogen and Franco fall ass-backwards into a face-off with Cole and his army at a secluded hideout. It’s a remarkable bit of filmmaking, in that moments of brain-damaged humor and buddy-film bonding never for a second seem out of sync with carnage so bloody it could have been choreographed by Quentin Tarantino.
So, for the moment anyway, the most reliable source for a Hollywood hoot, the go-to guy for a good laugh at the movies, would appear to be Seth Rogen. You can count the industry’s functioning writer-performers on one hand. But now, on the heels of Knocked Up and Superbad, Pineapple Express suggests it’s safe to approach Rogen’s work with hopes as high as any of the characters he’s played.