Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Pineapple Express: Hawaiian Punch

You never know who is going to enjoy a stoner comedy. The audience make-up for these highly cerebral films isn't what you think it is. Assumptions are deadly: Your whole view of world order might change when you see Pineapple Express, this summer's cinematic ganja-fest. My previously held suppositions were challenged by a septuagenarian couple, complete with drum-sized tub of popcorn and giant Cokes, who guffawed so loudly that they drowned out the laughter of two bona fide potheads three rows to the front.

At the end, the potheads engaged in an exceptionally thoughtful dialogue that weighed the merits of Pineapple Express against those of Superbad, last year's adolescent relation.

This summer, everything lines up behind metaphoric The Dark Knight, a film that blurs the lines of the human coin well past a common smudge. Pineapple Express, on the other hand, proves that stoned is an acceptable human condition unto itself.

Seth Rogen plays Dale Denton, a joint-smoking process server whose creative excellence at his job may or may not have something to do with the constant doobie dangling from his lips. The pot either fires him up or keeps him from being fired, take your pick. Dale looks like a tubby loser, but he can't be because he has a hot babe (Amber Heard) who hasn't yet graduated from high school.

Dale gets his pot from Saul (James Franco), a dealer whose illegal business keeps his grandmother in a pricey retirement facility. Franco gets into Saul's skin stripped of the usual over-acted assortment of dopey tics and peers out from his dilated pupils with natural jocosity. Saul's in sole possession of a bag of superfume--Pineapple Express--that he acquired from Red (Danny R. McBride), a middleman for drug kingpin Ted Jones (Gary Cole). Said Pineapple Express is nutured on the current of the same name, which flows from Hawaii to any destination on the West Coast.

Turns out that Dale's next assignment is to serve a subpoena on Ted, but when he pulls up outside Ted's home he witnesses Ted and Ted's bad-cop girlfriend (irrelevantly played by Rosie Perez) kill a hired gun belonging to an Asian drug lord. In his effort to flee, Dale smashes the police car and drops his Pineapple Express joint out the window, quickly realizing that it can be traced back to Saul and through Saul to Dale himself.

The movie alternates between the sublime and the stupid, the violent and the vapid, with some nice little "bromance" bonding the two main characters (best exhibited in a woodsy montage that in hindsight looks like a cross between a retro commercial for feminine hygiene products and an endorsement for Father Flanagan's) that gets taken far past its prime; the bond between men, it seems, reduces all other relationships to asides. To that end, Dale's girlfriend is abandoned to a cheap hotel room and some poorly delivered dialogue while Red is elevated to nearly co-star status.

Once Dale and Saul flee Ted's goons, they trash Red's home, hide out paranoid in the woods, and fight valiantly and ridiculously against both Ted Jones and his cadre of punks and the rival Asian gang, who are subtitled in a manner that recalls the barely literate and probably racist transliteration of the Chinese-equals-evildoer conceit that decorated many an earlier film. In a plot rivaling The Perils of Pauline, Saul is imprisoned and must be saved--can only be saved--by his male buddy. But not before he gets blown six ways to Sunday by the chain reaction of a bomb.There are shades of television Westerns and the endearing paternal relationship between the Skipper and Gilligan.

At times the transitions are so choppy that incoherence sets in, a problem that also affects the dialogue. When a joke falls flat, it thuds ("Garagely"). Also at times, the violence extends beyond that which makes a theatregoer laugh and that which makes a theatregoer pale; this generally occurs with overkill of a type that starts to inflict severe wincing when heads that are already bashed to smithereens get smashed like watermelons and people get crushed alive in gleeful moments of directorial sadism.

Pineapple Express is, at times, beautifully acted. This is truest of Saul and Red, the latter evoking a David Lynch-like idiosyncrasy as he frosts a birthday cake for a dead cat and, like a cat, cruises through his nine lives with amazing resilience.

There's probably no need to mention the lavish amount of swearing and crudeness. This is either pleasurable or forced and at times approaches smart. Smartness is not in evidence during a male pas de deux when Saul and Dale appear to be engaged in flagrante when they are trying to cut restraints with a belt buckle. Right there, the issues inherent in Pineapple Express are most apparent: the writers (Rogen and Evan Goldberg) refuse to distinguish farce from cliché. It's troubling, because when they get it right it's golden. Vulgar, but golden.

The deliberation with which the writers hammer home the strictly unapologetic male bonding ultimately works against the film; the only surprise is that the male duet becomes a trio in the final scene. A maimed and partially blackened trio that eats a mundane breakfast in a diner and swears eternal love and loyalty to fraternity. Boys will be boys will be boys who go through an entire film not pursuing la chasse but chasing that rare fellowship that can only occur when good buds meet good bud.

At its best, Pineapple Express is surprisingly cagey and at its worst, obvious. Even as spoof, some lines were crossed: The opening exposition was unnecessary and seemed to set the laugh meter to flat; this was an unfortunate introduction that caused anticipation to stall until the introduction of the Saul character. The same problem plagues the climax, in which most of the cast assembles for a bloodfest in a barn.

Farce is difficult to pull off; it often reeks of "I just flew in from New York and boy, are my arms tired" humor. It's as if each time a film tries to reinvent this type of comic wheel it gets away with dropping it in your lap and walking away without realizing that once a bad joke, always a bad joke. If the bad joke is a bad joke, then one wonders where the director thinks his audience has been for the last fifty years. Not born yet, obviously. With lack of development, the retelling seems cheap and perplexing for all but the one person who has and will always be half a century or so behind the times and probably brings a paper bag of stale canapés to the theatre. The difference is between a classic and a sagged chestnut. Still, the possibility holds that the expected audience may not be experienced with what the film deems "bromosexual" behavior; a good portion of the audience was a week past an inability to gain admission to an R-rated movie. Fortunately, there was enough elsewhere in Pineapple Express in the form of well done and deadpan slapstick that this is forgiven, although it makes you wonder if the director is lazy, uninformed, or just rubbing his hands together with puerility. Which isn't a bad thing necessarily, we all need a reminder that summer shouldn't be complicated by artsiness or academia or taking one's own intellect too seriously. Remember, there was a time when we'd have found a guy who was forced to play out a love scene in tighty whities unbearably humorous.


enc said...

I haven't seen this one; I tried to eke my way through "Superbad," and just couldn't do it. I wonder if I don't like the genre, or if I don't like Rogen. Should I see it?

Sm. said...

Haven't seen Superbad yet (although I'm curious because Thomas keeps quoting from it), and had to take a break half way through Knocked Up. By the time it comes out on DVD, I might be ready for Pineapple Express.

KATLIN said...

I tried to just enjoy the movie, and thought it was funny. When it comes to movies like this, I go in knowing it's stupid. The biggest issue I took with the movie was how they portrayed the Asians. The ring leader of the Asians was Mr. Chung (a Chinese name), yet he answered the phone in Korean and then didn't talk in Korean, but in some other language I don't know. And in the fighting scene they of course have to look ninja like.

Adam Morey said...

I thought that the "Garagely" joke was hilarious. I like that kind of humor. Plus, Superbad was brilliant, its funny. Who cares what else the movie has to offer...these kinds of movies are just comedies that contain elements that you will recognize making them funnier and more memorable. A lot of it is right on point.