August 6, 2008

Pothead Romp Doles Out Jokes Amid Tokes

By Frank Gabrenya, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

Aug. 6--I've figured out how the Judd Apatow comedy machine can turn out movies so quickly: Four-letter words take a lot less time to type than 10- or 12-letter words.

A lot of profanity and a little heart are found in Pineapple Express, a comedy that advances producer Apatow's brand of rudeness and dudeness.

The biggest change is that sex -- a dominant theme of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall -- has been replaced by violence.

Of course, even the blood pales in comparison with Pineapple's most important element: marijuana. Not just an occasional joint, mind you, but cannabis with a capital Weed, in exotic variations -- rolled and bagged, stuffed into pipes and bongs, and constantly ignited into smoke.

Yes, it's a stoner-slacker comedy with a body count -- loose, often funny, sometimes sloppy and destined to be embraced by its target audience.

Seth Rogen -- who co-wrote the movie with his Superbad collaborator, Evan Goldberg -- plays Dale, a Los Angeles summons server who takes pride in his occupation, though not so much that he doesn't go through his workday perpetually stoned.

His supplier is Saul (James Franco), a low-rung dealer who talks of a future career in engineering between excessive samplings of his own merchandise. The highlight of his inventory is a spectacular new strain called Pineapple Express, which Saul claims is so good that "It's a shame to smoke it. It's like killing a unicorn."

The action kicks in after Dale witnesses the murder of a rival by top-level drug dealer Ted Jones (Gary Cole) and a policewoman (Rosie Perez) on his payroll. In a panic, Dale flees after tossing out the Pineapple Express he was smoking. Jones can trace the stuff to Saul.

That sends Saul and Dale on the run, with no plan but self-preservation. If you think their dire circumstances would persuade the men to keep their heads clear, you would be underestimating their weakness for pot.

The plot provides natural comic situations, abetted by wonderfully clumsy violence. The two visit Red (Danny R. McBride), the middleman between Saul and the murderer, and end up trashing Red's house when they realize he has fingered them to the bad guys. In an impressive variation on umpteen chases, they make a getaway in a stolen police car with Saul driving, even though his foot is sticking through a windshield that has been splattered with Slushees.

Director David Gordon Green, a star of the art-house circuit (George Washington, Undertow, Snow Angels) , fits right into the Apatow stable of profane comedy, although, frankly, much of his responsibility might have consisted of making sure there was film in the camera.

Pineapple Express is Rogen's movie, even though he lets Franco get more of the laughs. Their scenes have an ad-libbed flavor, and the plot has a stoned sensibility that staggers as often as it races. Movie tradition soon sets in, as the usual hurt feelings separate the heroes briefly before the standard showdown with the villains.

The movie doesn't turn as dark as other violent comedies, such as Nurse Betty or Hot Fuzz. It stays odd with inspired touches, such as one character beating another with a Dustbuster. By the time Dale charges into almost-certain death to save his pal, movie convention has won out over fresh comedy.

Still, Pineapple Express delivers enough guilty laughs to convulse a summer audience high on nothing more than popcorn.

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To view clips from and hear Frank Gabrenya discuss this film on "Reel Talk," click play in the video player below.


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