Pineapple Express could easily be titled The Apatow Express for the way it expands on Judd Apatow’s influence as a modern-day Mel Brooks. The title refers to a hybrid kind of marijuana so rare that to smoke it is akin to “killing a unicorn.” James Franco busts out some impressive comic chops as Saul, a good-natured pot dealer who befriends his process server client Dale (played by the ever reliable Seth Rogen) to whom he sells the precious herb. The two young men bond after Dale witnesses a murder committed by pot kingpin Ted Jones (Gary Cole) with the help of a bad-apple woman cop (Rosie Perez). Desperate to escape the wrath of Ted’s bloodthirsty henchmen, Dale and Saul employ the unreliable help of a pot middleman named Red (played by impressive newcomer Danny McBride). Over the top in its take-no-prisoners comic approach, Pineapple Express draws on stylistic and plot elements from ‘70s martial arts movies, shock horror films and Tarantino set pieces to generate a new type of irreverent comic cinema in touch with the candid allegiance of a new generation. It’s also an open plea for the legalization of marijuana.
Seth Rogen co-wrote the script and his influence in the Judd Apatow world of comedy hits (The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up) has proven his talents as a writer, co-producer and actor with a knack for hitting audiences in their funny bones and their hearts. Rogen’s acting background with James Franco dates back to their days together on the short-lived but seminal television show Freaks and Geeks, for which their characters constituted two of the title’s “freaks.”
One of the significant factors that sets the Apatow brand of comedy apart from other comic film genres is the cohesion between its ensemble team that contributes to generating a proven comic chemistry without suffering from committee-led studio editorial authority. In keeping their budget just below the midrange mark, the team is able to walk a fine line of genuine collaboration that expands their films’ comic range toward loosely irreverent ideas that present a radical departure from Hollywood’s unrelenting output of diluted comic movies.
Some audiences will view Pineapple Express as a pot movie, while others will see it as more of an action comedy. Both are correct, but more importantly it’s a fearless compilation of unfettered comic ideas, cinematic references and improvisational bits of narrative glue that generates something exciting and original. In the same way that Martin Scorsese borrowed bits and pieces from Italian neo-realist films to break new ground with films like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, the Apatow team is composed of passionate filmmakers (meaning the ensemble of cast, crew and everyone in between) pushing the envelope on what’s possible.
It’s fun to follow the connective tissue of each performer—from Rosie Perez and Gary Cole to Danny McBride—in the ways that they contribute to the overall effect of the infectious humor present in every scene. The way that their reality-based characters collide in sometimes grotesque ways carries an undercurrent of outrageous violence that backhandedly references the wars that pull at the seams of American society. It’s in these scenes of stark aftermath that director of photography Tim Orr (Undertow) attaches biting tableaus to put a human price on what we find entertaining. There’s nothing heavy-handed and Orr barley even approaches commentary; it’s just a matter-of-fact way of viewing a logical conclusion, regardless of its comic impetus.
The daringness to be raw and immature while being wholly calculating and sophisticated is the key that makes movies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad and Pineapple Express refreshing. You could call it lightening in a bottle. Or a bong. MTW