There is a scene in Undertow (2004), director David Gordon Green’s over baked third film, that still makes me cringe. Chris Munn (Jamie Bell), while being chased by the irate father of the girl he fancies, leaps from a rooftop and impales his bare foot on a nail protruding from a board below. With the nail buried deep in his flesh, he keeps running.
So what the hell does that scene have to do with Pineapple Express, the newest “Judd Apatow” comedy about a pair of stoners who witness a murder and then go on the lam? When I first saw directing credits went to David Gordon Green, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Was this the same David Gordon Green who directed George Washington (2000), an indie gem that examines the moment children learn about mortality after a tragic accident? Was this the same David Gordon Green who created the plaintive, poetic All the Real Girls (2003), the story of a small town lothario discovering that pain comes with true love? Nothing in Green’s oeuvre even remotely contains the dick and drug jokes Apatow happily flaunts in the string of blockbusters that he has either produced or directed (Knocked Up, Superbad, etc.). So what gives?
Though Pineapple Express stars Apatow veterans Seth Rogen and James Franco, this film is cut from a much darker fiber than The 40 Year Old Virgin and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Replacing the sweet sentiment that filled those movies like two overstuffed crème puffs, violence is at the heart of this tale. Rogen stars as Dale Denton, a sad sack who serves subpoenas and likes to split his free time visiting his girlfriend at her high school for make-out sessions in the hall and smoking a shitload of weed. The film also features Freaks and Geeks vet Franco as Saul Silver, Rogen’s sweet but clueless drug dealer. Franco, who has said that he patterned his Saul after Brad Pitt’s minor stoner role in True Romance, gives a truly hilarious and poignant performance as the dealer who wants nothing more than to be Rogen’s friend.
Does it seem like I mention weed a lot in this review? Every other feature you will read about the film will reference stoner/buddy movies from Up In Smoke to Harold and Kumar. Hell, the Pineapple Express itself is a special kind of herb that is so potent and rare that when the murderers discover a discarded roach near the crime scene, they can trace its origins back to the one man who sells it: Saul.
Like last year’s Hot Fuzz, Pineapple Express could be considered an action movie/comedy. The amount of graphic violence is surprising. If you thought watching Steve Carell being stripped of his chest hair was disturbing, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Faces are burnt by coffee, ears are bitten and blown off, people are beaten with Dustbusters, and one member of the cast is shot multiple times yet still lives as a running gag. Though the story originated with Rogen, Apatow, and Evan Goldberg, I credit a lot of the film’s darkly violent scenes to Green. In his prior movies, violence lurked beneath the surface of small town life, waiting for the right moment to appear. In some ways, it’s as if Green is using the over-the-top venture of Pineapple Express to indulge those previously opaque violent tendencies.
Without revealing too much more, there are enough laughs and cringe-worthy moments to justify the price of admission. True, I’ve watched enough scenes of men sobbing like children to barely chuckle when they appeared here, but Rogen and Franco are both funny and sympathetic, and Green complements them with an array of interesting supporting characters (most notably, Ed Begley Jr. and Nora Dunn). Perhaps the funniest role in the film goes to Danny McBride -- so good as Bust-Ass in All the Real Girls -- as Red, Franco’s middleman who is both somewhat violent (he shaves his armpits to streamline his fighting) and somewhat Buddhist. It is a priceless performance.
One of my co-writers asked, “When is Apatow going to run out of funny?” It hasn’t happened yet. Pineapple Express is a much different, more vicious animal than this collective’s previous outings. It’s laughter with teeth. As one character menacingly cocks a shotgun, he deadpans, “Thug life.” It’s this conundrum, the fine line between the smile and the grimace that Pineapple Express attempts to traverse, a balancing act that Green nimbly negotiates, stumbling slightly as the body count threatens to weigh him down. But he just smiles, lights a spliff, and then walks off with his equilibrium intact.