Ahhh, the pot movie. The stoner flick. Such a well-traversed and easily discounted genre. The luxury of these features is that the expectations are never very high. Even for comedy, the writers/producers/directors of a movie about weed are generally held to a pretty light standard. There’s a built in audience and that audience isn’t always the most discerning. Nonetheless, Pineapple Express strives to be among those few standouts of the genre. Up in Smoke, Dazed and Confused, Friday, Harold and Kumar, and Pineapple Express? Sure, why not.
Pineapple Express follows process server Dale Denton (Seth Rogen) and his friend and/or weed dealer Saul Silver (James Franco). After witnessing a murder at the hands of a notorious drug lord, Ted Jones (Gary Cole) and his crooked cop partner Carol (Rosie Perez), Dale and Saul are forced to go on the run. Getting bloodied and beaten along the way, Dale and Saul’s bromance grows in leaps and bounds until they finally decide to face Jones in a kill or be killed finale reminiscent of any of the great over-the-top action flicks. Think Speed + Die Hard with lots and lots of weed.
Weed movies tend to work best when they utilize something familiar. Dazed and Confused establishes a nostalgic reminiscence that an audience can relate to, Harold and Kumar is a road trip movie, even Half-Baked has some elements of a love story. Pineapple Express draws recognizable elements from all manner of action films. There are bloody fist fights that move far beyond slapstick into the territory of serious violence, there are gunfights and car chases, and the necessary implausibility of our main characters escaping it all unharmed. This action works much the same way it does in Hot Fuzz, with stereotype breeding spoof. This, I suppose, is the luxury of a comedic action film: since there are really no stakes here, we’re free to laugh at all the ridiculous and horrifying injuries these two guys sustain. It’s a method I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of and it works completely.
The main drawback to the final product is the presence of Seth Rogen. Rogen is a competent actor and a solid writer, but there’s nothing he does here that leaves you wanting more of him. Dale Denton is not a particularly likeable character and ultimately it’s Seth Rogen’s portliness plus the exaggerated action scenes that keep him entertaining. Rogen’s humdrum performance wouldn’t be as bothersome if he weren’t surrounded by so many talented comedians and actors. Outside of Seth Rogen you’re hard-pressed to find a weak link in this cast. Danny McBride is without comedic peer as Red, the spineless and effeminate middleman. Craig Robinson takes what could have been a rote goofy gangster role and turns it into something you’ve never seen before. Even Rosie Perez is funny! But it’s James Franco who really emerges. It’s not often you can say a prominent actor’s best role came in a weed movie (Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused?), but James Franco does so much with so little, finding time to be both hilarious and sweet and endearing. He was nominated for a Golden Globe, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say he should have beaten the great Robert Downey Jr. (Tropic Thunder) for a best supporting actor nod from the Academy.
I look forward to the next solid addition to this bizarre sub-genre that is the Stoner Flick. Comedy is a fluid practice and the better films are always looking forward. Seth Rogen has done a fine job of keeping that momentum moving with Pineapple Express. Hopefully, next time, he’ll do a little more to reign in his own amount of face time.