Can Judd Apatow be called a subversive force in Hollywood? If you believe so (and I do), you could rightly point to a handful of factors. The comedies he produces overflow with raunch — with dialogue so nasty it’s downright skanky, and with skank-outrage behavior to match. In addition to being obscene as hell, his films are thrillingly and madly literate, a jumble of pop culture scholasticism and white-boy hip-hop jargon that is intricate enough to erase the line between stoopid and genius. And at a time when Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise can’t be guaranteed to open a film, Apatow has created a revenge-of-the-nerds alternate universe in which an actor who looks like Seth Rogen can become a movie star.
But there’s an additional factor of subversion at play. Knocked Up was just a glorified sitcom, but starting with the inspired Superbad, and then with the underrated Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Apatow has presided over movies that have no plots — that spill forward with casual abandon, wandering down blind alleys and turning those alleys into full-blown highways, which twist and turn with the rambling stoned logic of ’70s movies. Pineapple Express does that quite literally, since it’s the tale of two happy, seemingly harmless potheads who get caught in a world of murderous crime. Dale Denton (Rogen) is a process server (he delivers subpoenas for a living), but basically he spends his days driving around and getting high, smoking the dope he buys from his trusted dealer, Saul Silver (James Franco), a long-haired slacker in an ancient Jaws T-shirt and striped pajamas, who is so perpetually blasted he can never see past the next moment. (This is either a state of wreckage or a state of grace, depending on your vantage.)
For a while, as the two sit around Saul’s living room, trying out his latest shipment of a super-dynamite weed called Pineapple Express, the movie is amusing in a verbally dissociated, been-there-toked-that way. Rogen and Franco make an amiably wacked comedy team — it’s like watching a buddy film with Albert Brooks and Joe Dallesandro. But then Dale heads off from Saul’s apartment, bag of dope in hand, and when he’s parked in front of another dealer’s home (it’s Saul’s supplier, in fact), he witnesses a murder. Before long, the two are being pursued by hitmen, cops, and God knows who else, and the film turns crazy and bloody violent — without ever quite violating its goofy stoner vibe. Pineapple Express is a fitfully amusing tale of drugs and crooks and general dilapidation, but the more it goes on, and the loopier it gets, the less it connects with experience. It becomes Apatow’s hash-bar version of a cynical action joyride.
The director, David Gordon Green, is the last filmmaker on earth one would have expected to work with Apatow — he’s a creator of somberly beautiful and austere American art films (Snow Angels, All the Real Girls) — but he brings the movie his own loping, run-on style, which turns out to be a perfect expression of the stoner rhythm. Green knows what’s funny about potheads: They’re always trying to think, and act, straight. Saul is a sweet kid who worries about his “bubbe” (i.e., grandma), and Franco, through his slurry daze, makes him an amusing hipster-autodidact — he knows just how to hit a five-dollar word like trifecta. And the more weed Dale smokes, the more Rogen gives him a demented clarity. Dale, another of Apatow’s sheepish man-kids, is dating a high school senior (Amber Heard), which would be gross if the film didn’t see it as a pathetic expression of arrested development. As Red, the supplier’s middleman who becomes the comrade of our heroes, Danny McBride is the McLovin of the group, with a quizzical cluelessness that hilariously shreds his pretense of ”danger.”
There’s one excruciatingly funny sequence in which Saul, literally in the driver’s seat, is cruising along at top speed, with his foot smashed through the windshield: the perfect stoned action posture. But as Pineapple Express turns into a deranged vehicle of slapstick mayhem, with people getting smashed in the head with coffeepots, its charm begins to ebb away. The movie wants to be a jolly dope spree turned nightmare — just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that vicious thugs aren’t trying to dismember you! — but it ends up subverting its own subversion, arriving at a place that can only be called conventional. B
More Pineapple Express:
Comic-Con 2008: Seth Rogen, James Franco, and Danny McBride talk Pineapple Express