Monday, January 12, 2009

Pineapple Express

Director: David Gordon Green
Starring: Seth Rogen, James Franco, Danny McBride, Amber Heard, Gary Cole, Rosie Perez

Running Time: 110 min.

Rating: R

**** (out of ****)

Remember that scene in Dumb and Dumber when Harry found out Lloyd traded their sheepdog van for a little scooter and tells him just when he thought he couldn’t be stupider, he goes off and does that….and completely redeems himself. That would sum up my feelings for Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen right now. When Pineapple Express ended and that awesome Huey Lewis title song was blasting over the credits I was trying to figure out why I loved the film so much. Then it hit me. It was the first Apatow-produced comedy where I finally didn’t have to think why I enjoyed it. Even though the story it tells would seem to be at first glance very comfortable in the Apatow universe it lacks the lofty ambitions and inflated sense of self-importance that were holding all of his movies back. Freed from those shackles we’re finally allowed to let go and have fun, ironically resulting in the most substantial film his name has been attached to.

On paper the story looks familiar and the script doesn’t cover ground that’s completely unlike most Apatow projects so you have to believe the true difference maker here was the director, David Gordon Green. The acclaimed independent filmmaker best known for small-scale poetic dramas like George Washington, Undertow, All The Real Girls and the recent Snow Angels (which I’ve yet to see) was the oddest of directorial choices for this. More shocking than the fact that he was asked was that he took it, answering the question of what would happen if a gifted filmmaker of the highest rank were handed a dopey stoner comedy. In this case the results are astonishing, as he does the unthinkable in actually elevating the material to his level, providing an almost surreal viewing experience for those familiar or even unfamiliar with his other work.
Make no mistake about it. This isn’t a Judd Apatow comedy. It's actually very much a David Gordon Green film. And that’s why it works so well. He eliminates all the negative and self-indulgent qualities that have ran through most of Apatow’s previous output and focuses on what matters most: the laughs. Gone is the unnecessary exploration of characters’ feelings, an over-reliance on too realistic situations lacking humor, and messy, overlong third acts. Yes, I’m looking at you Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Knocked Up. Nothing about this feels the slightest bit like an Apatow movie and it’s the best thing that could have happened. For once, he picked the right guy who was able to do with this kind of comedy what none of his other directors-for-hire could: Stick a perfect landing. Every joke hits. Every performance works. The tone is dead-on and consistent. It also features the best action scenes of the year and a supporting turn from an actor worthy of having his name read alongside Heath Ledger’s when the five supporting actor nominees are announced next week. In a year full of big disappointments, Pineapple Express is exactly the right movie at the right time, raising the bar for its genre.

After a black-and-white prologue explaining the myth behind a rare strain of cannabis known as “Pineapple Express,” we’re introduced to 25-year-old process server Dale Denton (Rogen), a lazy slacker who when not “working” spends his days scoring weed from his dealer, Saul (James Franco) and visiting barely legal girlfriend, Angie (Amber Heard) at her high school. When Dale attempts to deliver a summons to a drug lord named Ted Jones (Gary Cole), he inadvertently witnesses Jones and a corrupt female police officer (Rosie Perez) murder an Asian gang member in cold blood. He clumsily flees the scene but not before leaving a damning piece of physical evidence: a roach containing the legendary “Pineapple Express.” Jones immediately identifies it and sends his two henchmen (Craig Robinson and Kevin Corrigan) to threaten Saul’s dealer Red (Danny McBride) into giving up the identity of the buyers. The chase is on and what unfolds is a nearly perfect action comedy that at times had me laughing so hard I was in physical pain.

The thing about stoner movies (at least the really good ones) is that their success depends on the degree in which the experience is effectively conveyed through the hazy worldview of its baked protagonists. Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle was able to do it, while at the same time, being a surprisingly deeper than expected buddy picture. This does all that, and then more. When stoned (so I’ve heard), everything takes on a greater importance and little everyday details are exaggerated to hilarious effect. That’s why in hindsight, Green, though untested in these waters, was actually the perfect director for this kind of material. He understands those little life details and it’s in those details where the best comedy comes from. This film is loaded with them. Take for instance a scene where Dale shows up at Angie’s high school in a suit to meet her. It doesn’t come off creepy as it would in the hands of another director, but funny. Green keeps a firm, tight grip over tone, something all Apatow movies have seemed to struggle with (some more than others). Or when he arrives for dinner with her parents (Ed Begley Jr. and Nora Dunn in hilarious cameos) and they’re not only not the slightest bit thrown by him or his situation, but insinuate themselves into it without missing a beat. Then they escalate it.

The entire plot reverses, subverts or distorts expectations at every turn and even if you didn’t know beforehand Green was the director you’d be able to tell. Relying on his usual cinematographer, Tim Orr, this movie by far boasts the highest production values of any Apatow entry. I couldn’t believe how good the movie looks for a comedy. It’s actually (insert gasp) a well-made motion picture that’s tightly edited and doesn’t needlessly fill time to sell unrated DVD’s. When it shifts into 80’s action territory it does so without missing a beat and succeeds where this summer’s Tropic Thunder couldn’t in milking graphic gore for comedy.
Besides earning laughs instead of winces, Green proves that if he ever wanted to he could quit directing human dramas right now and move on to big budget action vehicles. Michael Bay would have to watch his back because this film’s thrilling action send-up finale could easily compete with the best action sequences of the past few years. How often can you praise the technical aspects of a comedy? It also felt so nice to not be looking at my watch wondering why it isn’t over yet. An Apatow movie that isn't too long! Finally!

If there’s a reoccurring theme that’s prevalent (sometimes too much so) in the movies either written, directed or produced by Apatow it’s of man-children being forced to grow up and take responsibility. Except this time it’s a little different. Whereas all those other films felt the unnecessary need to tell us they were about that this one just IS ABOUT IT. For a change, Apatow wasn’t on the couch with me as I watched, shaking me and telling me what to feel. Even with the 40-Year-Old Virgin and Superbad (my two favorites) I still felt the strings being pulled just a little bit. Not here. Much of that credit goes to Green, but the rest of it goes to Rogen and Franco.

Just look at Franco during this film. Look at his eyes. He’s gone. He must have gotten completely fried in the trailer before stepping onto the set. For insurance purposes though I’ll assume he didn’t, which means his Saul is the most indelible cinematic stoner since Sean Penn’s Spicolli in Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Cruise’s supporting turns in Tropic Thunder were hilarious but that’s the extent of it. I never got the impression that there were three-dimensional people under those disguises. That’s what separates Franco’s performance from theirs and why he deserves the Oscar slot one (or both) may get. There’s an underlying sweetness and humanity to the character that’s rare to this kind of comedy and not many actors could have subtly projected it while still surrendering to the absurd zaniness around them.

As for Rogen, I was surprised just how refreshingly laid-back and charming he was as the lead. His ability to carry a film up until now was questionable but he proves the doubters wrong here with his most assured performance. Most would have expected each actor to be playing the role the other is but once again a clever reversal of those preconceived expectations yields shockingly effective results. This is the first time Rogen and Franco have shared the screen since they co-starred in Apatow’s dearly missed cult TV series Freaks and Geeks and also the only time since where what made each stand out on it is translated in its entirety to the big screen. The talented McBride perfectly completes the trifecta as the conniving, but ultimately very likable Red, stealing every scene he’s in, specifically the most important ones.
I watch comedies to laugh, not be burdened by characters’ life problems. How is it that Green, who up until now specialized in films dealing entirely with serious life problems, is the only director who gets it? It’s probably because he understands human relationships and knew enough not to force the issue and let Rogen and Franco do their thing, trusting the cards to fall into place. They did. I cared about these guys and by the end (if not before that) their friendship means something and finally the high water mark these Apatow comedies have been reaching for is met. This is the one I’ve been waiting for from him, he just needed to find the right filmmaker to execute it. Green seamlessly makes the transition to the mainstream leaving no independently honed skill behind. It's the antithesis of “selling out.”

When the film concludes, Pulp Fiction-style, in a diner over breakfast with the perpetually stoned characters discussing the insane events that transpired in the film you realize just how smart Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s script really was. How it subverted expectations and how the characters are, in a way, us. They tell the story how we would and realize how fun it is that they were involved in it. The myth told at the beginning is officially replaced by theirs. It’s the first movie for stoners as envisioned by stoners, yet you don’t have be one to enjoy it (though I’m betting it couldn’t hurt). Rich enough in details, it should hold up very well in subsequent viewings and amass a cult following, as if it hasn’t already. As days have passed I still can’t stop quoting it and laughing at certain scenes. Pineapple Express is the rare comedy you can love and it will love you back.


thebonebreaker said...

Awesome!! :-)

I am glad to hear that this film is going to be as good as I was hoping it would be [I knew I should have seen it in the theatre!]

Great Review Jeremy - I am looking even more forward to seeing it now!

JD said...

This was my favorite film tied with In Bruges for 2008!!!
Excellent review!!

Soiled Sinema said...

I really enjoy the last line of this review. It's very true.