Stoner comedies, as became all too apparent during the brief heyday of Cheech and Chong, tend to suffer from an inherent liability: Their protagonists are too blissfully baked to budge from the couch, much less play an active role in some convoluted three-act narrative. The challenge, then, lies in dreaming up a scenario that’ll force these passive lumps into glazed-eyed, slo-mo action. Pineapple Express, the latest and loudest product of the Judd Apatow juggernaut, goes the Big Lebowski route—just as the Coens shoved Jeff Bridges’ counterculture casualty into a Philip Marlowe mystery, writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Superbad) keep things moving by inserting their wasted heroes into a bad ’80s action flick, complete with Huey Lewis anthem. If that notion sounds inspired, it can only mean that you haven’t endured the likes of Stakeout, Running Scared or Tango and Cash within recent memory. Pineapple Express mimics the genre with such loving expertise that it’s often every bit as generically mindless as its sources.
Ready for the Syd Field setup? Dale Denton (Rogen), a process server whose case of arrested adolescence runs so deep that he’s actually dating a high-school girl (Amber Heard), stops by the apartment of his dealer, Saul Silver (James Franco), to score a few ounces of the incredibly potent strain of Hawaiian weed that gives the movie its title. Then it’s off to push a subpoena into the hands of some random dude named Ted Jones (Gary Cole), who (a) proceeds to commit cold-blooded murder before Dale’s red-rimmed eyes; (b) turns out to be Saul’s supplier; and therefore (c) requires but a single puff from the roach Dale dropped as he fled the scene to know precisely where it came from. Before long, two insufficiently zany hit men (Kevin Corrigan and Craig Robinson) and a tediously corrupt cop (Rosie Perez) have Dale and Saul on the run, or at least on the digressive amble. The requisite car chases, explosions and male bonding ensue, along with a genuinely surprising quantity of realistic-looking post-Tarantino gore.
Every so often, the boys get a good parodic lick in—if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve already caught the film’s most hilarious gag, in which Saul attempts to kick in a car’s Slurpee-smeared windshield and winds up driving with one foot lodged in a tiny round hole. For the most part, however, Pineapple Express plays the ’80s-crap thing tediously straight, deriving its feeble humor almost entirely from the cast’s penchant for lazy, frenetic semi-improvisation. In that sense, it was probably a mistake to entrust the project to David Gordon Green, an indie director whose best films (George Washington, All the Real Girls) traffic in hushed lyricism. Working with his usual cinematographer, Tim Orr, Green makes Pineapple Express a bit more visually expressive than the average Apatow production but is otherwise subsumed by the sensibility of his collaborators—if ever there were a solid argument against the auteur theory, here it is. And Green’s love for actors, evident in all of his movies, here crosses the line into indulgence.
Speaking of which, Rogen’s blustering-nerd shtick is calcifying with alarming speed. I’ve been a fan since Freaks and Geeks—both he and Franco were Apatow discoveries—but he rubbed me the wrong way as the irresponsible cop in Superbad, which he and Bill Hader all but derailed in their scenes with McLovin, and here we often seem to be getting the stuff that would usually wind up on the DVD as deleted or extended scenes. (Like all Apatow films, Pineapple Express runs way the hell too long.) Franco fares considerably better—despite his looks, he has more of a gift for low comedy than for brooding drama, and he gives Saul a uniquely distracted mien that transcends stoner stereotype. But his chemistry with Rogen seems off, somehow; the film’s insistence that dealer and client gradually become best friends, which is clearly meant to be sincere and sarcastic simultaneously, seems imposed from without, not embodied from within. They aim for Belushi and Aykroyd, but achieve only Emilio Estevez and Richard Dreyfuss.