By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Lest you fear that “Pineapple Express” and other films of its ilk are a sign that the apocalypse is nigh, take heart, Pops. Yep, we’ve been here before. What’s old is again new. While I’d like to take credit for dubbing this stuff The New Raunchiness, those with a little historical insight know that it’s really the New Burlesque.
Only the vulgarity has been ratcheted up. For to be edgy, to provide that occasional segue from the propriety that we otherwise aspire to, the naughtiness must be allowed to take one good-sized giant step out of the box.
Director David Gordon Green, working under the aegis of Judd Apatow (“Knocked Up”), a sort of Fagin to young filmmakers cutting their teeth on these little epithet-spewing eyebrow-raisers, establishes a cadence. Like a charismatic orator, he builds slowly, drawing us into what will soon catapult completely out of control.
We are introduced to the rather ordinary Dale Denton (Seth Rogen), a stoner who finds being a process server offers life’s path of least resistance, “for now.” Take two baby steps, though, and the twenty-five-year-old visits his girlfriend, Angie (Amber Heard), at her high school. OK, she’s eighteen. But how would you feel if it were your daughter?
Yet, a la Isaac and Tracy in “Manhattan” (1979), ‘tis the younger one who seems to have all the sense. Serious Angie makes Seth Rogen’s semi-slacker swear that he’ll come over tonight for dinner and meet her parents. Hmm… that seems kind of normal. But wait. A stop-off at his drug dealer will change that.
Ensconced in his den, pot purveyor to the local demography, is James Franco’s Saul Silver. He is a throwback, cultivated either through a studied delve into method acting or a trip in a time machine to the 1960s, but probably both. What ensues is a flirtatious dance, a satiric metaphor that might apply to any business transaction.
Indeed, product and currency are exchanged, but not before each sizes up the other for potential friendship. This includes chiding balanced by compliment; challenge succeeded by accommodation, and finally a cautious reserve followed by an uncomfortable laughter. A master in the language of the deal, Silver’s rap is to English what scat is to singing.
Whether by destiny or happenstance, the two fates will soon intertwine and Dale will be making with the hip bon mots, too. But for now, he’s just enjoying this week’s special, the Pineapple Express, before serving the day’s last subpoena. Arriving at the residence, he witnesses a murder. One of the culprits is a cop. In his haste to flee, he drops a roach.
Now, if the reefer were anything but Pineapple Express it wouldn’t matter, my dear Watson. But considering the ultra potent properties and bouquet of said boutique weed, it soon dawns on Dale that the murderers, high muckamucks in the pot world, will be able to trace it back to Saul. He figures he owes the dude a heads up.
Thus the groundwork is laid for the freaked out version of what Rick in “Casablanca” (1942) termed “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Grabbing a few bags of the title marijuana, they take it on the lam. This leads, just for starters, to a night in the woods and a donnybrook with middleman Red (Danny R. McBride). There will be blood.
It is at this point that the movie abandons any semblance of good taste and takes its scandalous behavior to the next level. The language had been growing increasingly foul, but what now surprises is the progressive intensity of violence. While the Keystone Kops may have been the first to mix the bopping of heads with laughter, this is a quantum leap.
It makes for strange brew as the comic and brutal natures of the film never really meld, but rather more resemble two parallel running trains that continually crisscross. Rapt viewers won’t be able to help but alternate from laughter to abashment, and back to laughter. Other screwball aspects interject, making the carnage seem all the crazier.
Having already logged numerous hours as the schlemiel forced to navigate challenges and opportunities outside of his sloth-inspired bailiwick, Seth Rogen manages the aforesaid insanity without ever breaking character. And though Mr. Franco complements with Vaudevillian aplomb, it’s not quite certain which is Abbott and which is Costello.
Fact is, even with its bizarre, alchemic mix of drollery and violence, Mr. Green’s shock and awe farce utilizes a traditional, albeit flimsy, structure for its plot. Only the times and what the traffic will allow have changed. And yet still, even if viewed with that open-minded spirit, you can’t help but feel that “Pineapple Express” is as nutty as a fruitcake.
“Pineapple Express,” rated R, is a Columbia Pictures release directed by David Gordon Green and stars Seth Rogen, James Franco and Danny R. McBride. Running time: 111 minutes