Probably the nicest thing I can say about Pineapple Express (the title being the name of a particularly potent strain of pot) is that I didn’t in the least mind sitting through it. In fact, I’ve watched several sections of the movie more than once—partly because I’m still trying to determine exactly what it is, or even what it wants to be. This is far and away the oddest movie to come from the Judd Apatow factory, and probably the one that least smacks of an assembly-line approach. Whether or not that’s a good thing is something else altogether.
It’s easy to lay the credit—or blame—for the film’s oddness at the feet of the overrated, but undeniably talented, director David Gordon Green and his ace cinematographer, Tim Orr. And there’s some reason for that. It’s nice to see Green step outside his usual indie-film mopey reflectiveness, while still bringing with him an undercurrent of the sadness that marks his other movies, as well as the wide-screen visual elegance that’s the trademark of his work with Orr. (Often the most striking images in Green’s films—the time-lapse shots in the now demolished Sayles Bleachery in All the Real Girls (2003), for example—appear to have more to do with Orr than Green.) The question arises as to whether a stoner comedy actually benefits from this elegance. Does the carefully lit beauty of a stream in the moonlight as the background for one scene enhance the film, or does it distract from the comedy in the foreground?
For that matter, some of the sadness that clings to the film may have as much to do with cowriters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, whose screenplay for Superbad (2007) evidenced a similar tone. Both films deal very directly with a fear of loneliness and a fear of change. They also deal heavily in the romance of male bonding in a way that offers subtext aplenty.
The gay subtext here is impossible to miss, since the film’s overriding factor is the romance—there’s really no other word for it—between stoner Dale Denton (Rogen) and dealer Saul Silver (an unusually appealing James Franco). The scene where Saul tries (and succeeds) to get Dale to stay and smoke his latest invention (a cross-like joint lit in three places) plays exactly like someone desperate to get a date, and Franco plays the scene with a quality that suggests a giddy high-school girl on a first date. The appeal for Dale becomes more obvious when we find he has a high-school-age girlfriend (Amber Heard, Never Back Down), who, if anything, is too mature for him. The character arc from there even approximates the romantic-comedy structure, right down to the penultimate-reel breakup of Dale and Saul.
All of this is very interesting, and it affords the film a sense of weightiness, which is part of what makes it odd. But there’s also another dynamic at work that sets up a sense of cross-purposes that never gels. According to press releases, Rogen is very much pro-marijuana and producer Apatow is not. The pair reached an uneasy compromise on the film that results in a scene where Dale realizes, “We’re not much good when we’re high.” In the scene, Dale appears to be ready to swear off or at least modify his habit. Having arrived at that point, however, the film just as quickly forgets about it, so it hangs there like a sop to Apatow’s views and nothing more.
And yet none of this explains the film’s wildly shifting tones throughout. Depending on where you look, it’s a stoner comedy, an action comedy, an action thriller, a typical Apatovian man-boy concoction or a male-bonding romance. The problem is that, apart from the last, it’s not very good at any of these things. The action-comedy bits want to be Hot Fuzz (2007), or at least Shoot ‘Em Up (2007), but are neither as funny, nor as precise, nor as witty, nor as outrageous. The straight action-thriller parts, on the other hand, are simply flat, and often preposterous. (Are we really supposed to believe that a supersecret subterranean facility has a highly visible air vent sticking up in the middle of a field?) And the movie is premised and wrapped in a barely credible plot that has Dale witnessing a murder that sends him and Saul on the run from the marijuana mogul who committed the crime.
So why the three-and-a-half star rating? Simply because Pineapple Express is a fascinating mess, where the fascination outweighs the mess—at least by a narrow margin. Rated R for pervasive language, drug use, sexual references and violence.