Friday, September 19, 2008

Review - Pineapple Express

When David Gordon Green made his astonishing debut with George Washington, few of us could have speculated that we would find him, less than ten years later, taking the reins on a stoner action comedy. The filmmaker's early films were deeply personal pieces of work, full of artistry and a vivid directorial vision, but it is a vision that fewer and fewer people appear to be buying into, and the buzz surrounding Green's pictures has decreased with every subsequent effort (his last, Snow Angels, didn't even get released here). So perhaps it's the right time for Green to move onto new pastures, and he has followed the path recently trodden by Greg Mottola and Jake Kasdan towards the comic haven of Judd Apatow. In Pineapple Express, Green directs a screenplay written by Superbad creators Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and produced by Apatow, and the combination proves to be a very productive one. To be honest, Green's directorial hand is mostly absent from view in Pineapple Express. The film looks good, but it lacks the kind of visual flair his excellent cinematographer Tim Orr brought to their previous collaborations, and Green generally seems happy to just keep the film moving and to maintain a loose, irreverent tone throughout. By those standards, he is perfectly successful, but Pineapple Express does occasionally come close to veering off the rails.

As well as writing the film, Seth Rogen stars as Dale, a process server whose main interest is smoking pot. For this, he visits Saul (James Franco), his dealer, who has just received a shipment of something special, a brand-new product called Pineapple Express. "This is the dopest dope I've ever smoked" Saul rhapsodises, and when inviting Dale to sniff the packet he blissfully states, "it smells like God's vagina". The good news for Saul is that he's sitting on an exclusive - he's the only dealer in town with access to Pineapple Express - but the bad news is that this lands him in trouble when Dale witnesses a murder and, while fleeing the scene, drops his joint at the feet of the killer (Gary Cole). With their lives in danger, Dale and Saul decide to hit the road, with help/hindrance coming from soft-hearted dealer Red (Danny McBride), and their every move being tracked by bickering hitmen Budlofsky and Matheson (Kevin Corrigan and Craig Robinson).

Watching the way these characters interact is the most pleasurable aspect of the film; nobody involved in the picture seems to be cut out for this kind of business, and that's what makes it funny. Corrigan and Robinson bicker like a married couple as they pursue their targets; Matheson is constantly complaining about the irregular hours his job entails, which prevents him from going home and eating dinner with his wife, and the criticism this invites from Budlofsky is perhaps tinged by a hint of jealousy and regret. The film's primary relationship also plays heavily on its homoerotic undertones, with Saul and Dale's bond growing through stages that mirror a more romantic movie (including a tearful breakup montage and uplifting reunion), and some lines of dialogue that spell out this subtext in rather more blunt terms ("They say, like, don't dip the pen in company ink" Saul states, "I'm totally glad I dipped in your ink, bro").

As a double-act, Rogen and Franco are superb. Rogen is pretty much the straight man, while Franco's wonderfully laid-back turn is a revelation after watching the annoyingly over-earnest style of acting he has adopted in most films to date. He brings a touching sense of vulnerability to Saul, who is a total innocent lost in an adult world, and he is a joy to watches as he enthuses about new leaps in stoner technology ("the cross joint") or waxes lyrical on the wonders of Pineapple Express ("It's almost a shame to smoke it. It's like killing a unicorn... with, like, a bomb). He and Rogen have a beautiful comic chemistry, and some of the film's funniest sequences are those in which the screenplay's circuitous, occasionally non-sequitous dialogue comes to the fore, where incongruous lines like "Fuck Jeff Goldblum!" or "You threw up in my printer!" can get big laughs. The back-and-forth between them is a delight, and their encounters with Danny McBride's hilarious Red are particularly brilliant.

It's so much fun, in fact, that it almost seems a shame to spoil it with a plot. Occasionally, Pineapple Express remembers it's supposed to have a narrative, but when it does shake itself awake and focus on story, it shows its weakest side. Everything is kind of strung together in a haphazard way, and most of the scenes that don't involve the main three characters are a letdown, with Gary Cole and Rosie Perez being given scant material to work with, and the turf war between Cole and the Asian dealers seems to be a dull irrelevance until it impinges on the main action late on. It's perhaps this aspect of Pineapple Express that causes the film to feel a little longer than it is, and when Green tries to stage an explosive finale to the picture (this is, after all, supposed to be an action comedy), he falters badly.

Throughout Pineapple Express there's a curious tension between the action and comic portions of the picture. It is in its element when it's just looking for laughs, but when things get a bit more serious nobody seems entirely sure how serious they should get. An early fight scene between Saul, Dale and Red walks this line well - it's messy and brutal, but it's mostly ridiculous and funny - but in the final half-hour some of the violence seems overly harsh for a film with such a gentle demeanour. When Green, Rogen and Goldberg have shown such generosity to its characters, it leaves a nasty aftertaste when we watch these characters being killed off in a frequently arbitrary and violent way. This bloodshed almost derails the picture, but I think Pineapple Express had been so enjoyable up to that point in the proceedings, it allowed me to overlook its less appealing aspects. The moments that will stick with me are those built upon surreal comic inspiration, such as Dale's foot sticking out of a broken windshield during a car chase, or the playful, Malick-like interlude in which Dale and Saul frolic in the forest; and the utterly brilliant final sequence is good enough to forgive a multitude of sins. The picture's last moments find the perfect note to close on, and this scene - one of my favourite individual sequences of the year - manages to save Pineapple Express from its own worst excesses.