August 9, 2008

Reefer Madness?


By Mal Vincent

The Virginian-Pilot

It wasn't particularly shocking or funny when Cheech and Chong lit up for "Up in Smoke" in 1978. It's still not entertaining with the slacker-stoner, ho-hum comedy "Pineapple Express." The movie assumes that inhaling is sufficiently naughty to spur the prurient and that watching someone else get high is inherently hilarious.

Been there. Seen that.

As stoner comedies go, it's a good deal sloppier and lacking in invention than the recent, somewhat endearing antics of Harold and Kumar. This movie is committed to the theory that anyone who dismisses it as the inane trash it is will be branded uncool.

One suspects that the brand name of producer Judd Apatow, who seems to have a hand in every potential blockbuster comedy, will ensure the reverence of the cool seekers. He still calls upon the names of last year's "Superbad" and 2005's "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." (For how many more movie seasons?)

Seth Rogen, a specialist in vulnerable, chubby types, plays Dale Denton, who issues court summonses for a living. When he witnesses a murder committed by a drug kingpin (Gary Cole) and a crooked cop (Rosie Perez), he goes on the run. Rogen, who has been proclaimed a star long before he's due, looks sour and put-upon. Not funny.

Only the exaggerated scenes in which weed is sold to middle- school kids and police cars are stolen even remotely suggest comedy.

The movie's real surprise is James Franco, who plays Dale's buddy, a dingbat drug dealer named Saul Silver whose baked demeanor seems stolen from Sean Penn in 1982's "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." Franco is better known as a James Dean type on TV and the handsome villain in the "Spider-Man" movies. Here, he proves that an actor is often funnier than a comic. He steals every scene he's in.

Apatow has developed a formula in which he adds a "sweet" or "redeeming" scene to his raunchy comedies. This allows some fawning critics to give his films favorable notices. These "buddy" flicks have even spawned a new word for the genre - bromances. This one slips, though, in that there is no real growth in the relationship between Dale and Saul.

The most embarrassing scene is one in which the two cavort in a wooded setting as a kind of montage of togetherness.

To make sure of the movie's stance, Saul says the Pineapple Express of the title is so rare "it's almost a shame to smoke it. It's like killing a unicorn." In a black-and-white prologue that makes no sense, a character reacts to the same "express" with the ecstatic claim, "I feel like a slice of butter melting over a big old pile of flapjacks. Yeah." How poetic.

Of course there is a token finale about the perils of reefer madness. It's uttered with about the same satiric tinge as that comedy overstatement.

Even stranger is the fact that David Gordon Green, the promising director of a lyrical little independent film in 2000 called "George Washington," apparently sold out to join the mainstream here.

The movie is blessed with another scene-stealer. Danny McBride is quite inventive as a super-polite but utterly challenged druggie on the edge of nothingness. He always wants to be friends with people, but he betrays everyone and is quite violent. He's is the only truly original character on view.

As desperate as the slapstick is, it is not as sloppy as the action side of things. Apparently, there was an effort to create something reminiscent of a 1970s B-budget action movie. This would be quite a welcome contrast to all the over-produced superhero films of this summer, except for the execution. The action staging looks about on the level of "The Love Bug" (1968) or "The Shaggy Dog" (1959). There is a great deal of gory violence, though.

Just when we thought "The Love Guru" was firmly entrenched as the summer's worst comedy, this one provides competition.

Does anyone dare to be called "not cool" by pointing out that inhaling is not the same as guffawing?

Yes, we dare.

And we're cool with it.



Cast: Seth Rogen, James Franco, Gary Cole, Rosie Perez, Danny McBride, Amber Heard, Kevin Corrigan, Ed Begley Jr., Nora Dunn

Director: David Gordon Green

Screenplay: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg

Music: Graeme Revell

MPAA rating: R (language, drug use, violence)

Mal's rating: two stars

Originally published by BY MAL VINCENT.

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