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Pineapple Express is this summer's precise equivalent to Superbad: a Judd Apatow-produced buddy comedy directed by a proxy from the indie world (last time around, it was The Daytrippers' Greg Mottola; this time it's All the Real Girls' David Gordon Green). Both movies follow three marginally functional man-boys through a day and night of substance-abuse-related mayhem. The two movies were even released in the same part of the season, as a dog-days follow-up to the big Apatow comedy of early summer (in 2007, Knocked Up; this year, Forgetting Sarah Marshall).
Laugh for laugh, Pineapple Express is way funnier than Superbad. It may be the funniest mainstream comedy released so far this year (not that that means much when you've got The Love Guru pulling down your average). But my problem with the movie is the same that I had with its 2007 twin: It's a moral thing. The swath of destruction these boys leave in their wake—and Pineapple Express, unlike its predecessor, boasts a significant body count—seems disproportionate to the prevailing mood of dopey fun. Must every boys' night out culminate in exploding vehicles, multiple gunshot wounds, and piles of sadistically dispatched villains? Whatever happened to heading out to White Castle for sliders?
So much stoner humor rests on the simple fact that when you're high, accomplishing the most mundane task feels like a cognitive milestone. Hence the slider quest of the first Harold and Kumar movie, or Anna Faris' bewildering trek across Los Angeles in the unaccountably ignored Smiley Face. But Seth Rogen and James Franco, as the permanently zonked heroes of Pineapple Express, are saddled with problems that would stress out even the unbaked among us. Rogen plays Dale Denton, a process server in his mid-20s with little ambition beyond toking up and hanging with his barely legal girlfriend. On the way to deliver a subpoena to a drug boss named Ted Jones (Gary Cole), Dale witnesses a murder and flees in a panic to the house of his dimwitted dealer, Saul Silver (Franco). Dale leaves his joint behind at the crime scene, and Ted immediately pegs the weed as "Pineapple Express," a strain so rare that only he supplies it. Thus are Saul and Dale marked for destruction, along with Saul's middleman Red (Danny McBride).
The shaggy script (by Apatow, Rogen, and Evan Goldberg) careens deliriously from couchbound bull sessions to hyperviolent set pieces. The former are often hysterical, especially an early scene in which the needy Saul ropes Dale into smoking a state-of-the-art "cross-joint" while he holds forth on the work of his "second-favorite civil engineer" and the glories of Pineapple Express ("It smells like God's vagina … smoking this is sort of like killing a unicorn"). Similar to Brad Pitt, Franco may be a great character actor trapped in a leading man's body. He drooped as a listless hunk in the Spider-Man movies, the historical romance Flyboys, and that TV biopic of James Dean. But his Saul Silver is a wonder, a pajama-clad philosopher nearly dumb enough to qualify as a holy fool.
Rogen's acerbic and bumbling but ultimately warmhearted Dale isn't exactly a stretch from the character he's been playing ever since Freaks and Geeks—himself, I guess—but he reliably delivers the Rogen goods. And Danny McBride as the blustering, cowardly Red (imagine Falstaff in a mullet and a frayed kimono) is a genuine comic discovery. Indeed, McBride ought to have been discovered earlier this summer as a lovelorn tae kwon do instructor in the barely seen indie comedy The Foot Fist Way. But between this attention-grabbing role and his appearance next week in Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder, he should be commanding his own goofy franchise in a matter of months.
David Gordon Green and his fine cinematographer Tim Orr, whose previous films have been long on poetic voice-over and contemplative landscape-gazing, have no idea how to direct an action sequence—and why should they? The nearly 20-minute shoot-'em-up that concludes this film, involving car crashes, bombs, Korean ninjas, and light-saber duels with marijuana grow lights, makes no visual sense. But worse, it makes no sense in the movie as a whole. Why, at the end of a movie that's all about the minimalist pleasures of friendship (in one lovely, dialogue-free scene, Dale and Saul play leapfrog in the woods and marvel at a caterpillar), do we need an extended tribute to Tarantino-style "comic" gore? I guess the sight of Seth Rogen holding up a square-inch segment of his own ear cartilage does provide a frisson of queasy hilarity. But the casual bloodthirstiness of the last reel—particularly the dreadful end met by one endearing thug—seems out of keeping with the movie's essential sweetness, a far cry from Saul's trademark sign off: "Peace out."