Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer
Seth Rogen, Judd Apatow's Entourage, and David Gordon Green go for Another Sleeper Hit
Any doubts that Seth Rogen has a future as a leading man are going to be erased by The Pineapple Express.
Sure, he’s going to be a very particular kind of leading man, but a leading man nonetheless. Let me get even more specific: Seth Rogen is the stoner Albert Brooks. I’ll get back to that in a bit.
On paper, The Pineapple Express is a strange bird indeed. At first glance, it’s one of the eight million movies that are being released by the Judd Apatow Mafia (can’t he just start his own studio at this point?). It’s written by Rogen and writing partner Evan Goldberg, Judd Apatow’s protégés. And it stars Rogen, who just came off of his first leading man success in Apatow’s Knocked Up , which Rogen, by all reports, did a lot of the writing on (although he did not get a credit for it). Apatow gets a story and producing credit on Pineapple. And it co-stars James Franco, who’s known for his role in the Spiderman movies, but is a secret member of the Apatow Mafia (he was in Apatow’s beloved but ill-fated TV show Freaks and Geeks way back in 1999, and of course made a cameo in Knocked Up).
But wait a minute: it’s directed by someone who decidedly does not come immediately to mind when you hear the words “Judd Apatow”: David Gordon Green. As in the indie darling David Gordon Green, the guy responsible for the tiny, low-key, slice-of-life indie hits George Washington and All the Real Girls. What’s going on here? Is The Pineapple Express going to be wall-to-wall scenes in local dive bars where Rogen and Franco talk “for real” about relationships in these crazy times? Will it be kind of depressing? Will it even be—gulp—sincere?
Rest assured…no. The Pineapple Express is an unapologetic, unpretentious, straight-up stoner comedy in the proud tradition of Half-Baked, Harold and Kumar, and Cheech and Chong (The term "Pineapple Express" refers to a new strain of weed that Franco has acquired). What’s a stoner comedy? It’s a comedy where a couple of lovable stoners get caught up in zany life-or-death misadventures and bumble their way through to a happy ending. There’s straight-up stoner comedies (like Half-Baked) aimed at college kids (and, let’s face it, older teens); and then there’s “secret” stoner comedies, where the heroes are obviously stoners but don’t actually smoke weed on screen (like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure), which are aimed at a slightly younger market. Both straight-up and secret stoner comedies are a subgenre in the hallowed “innocent man caught up in a conspiracy” genre of classics like North by Northwest or Three Days of the Condor. The only difference is that Cary Grant didn’t spend every second of Northwest talking about, trying to score, or smoking marijuana.
For the record, The Pineapple Express is also a most excellent stoner comedy.
Stoner comedies rely on the chemistry and likeability of its stoner heroes, and Rogen and Franco have both in spades. Rogen’s character will be familiar to anyone who saw Knocked Up (which is pretty much everyone at this point). He’s a lovable loser who’s obsessed with pot (as Rogen himself seems to be in real life, or at least every interview I’ve read with him. Let’s start the watch now on when the weird combo of sudden worldwide fame and a (seemingly) hardcore addiction to THC causes Rogen to pull a Dave Chappelle on us). He plays a process server in Pineapple, a highly improbably job for Rogen’s character that seems to exist only to set up him witnessing the murder of someone he’s about to serve a subpoena to and then (thankfully) forgotten.
James Franco’s character will be familiar to no one who saw him in the Spiderman movies . Franco plays the pot dealer who always tries to get pot buyer Seth Rogen to hang out with him when he comes over to buy. He’s fantastic here, channeling the hilarious smoked-out slowness of Brad Pitt in True Romance. Showing the comedy chops he once displayed during his excellent turn on Freaks and Geeks, Franco plays an always-high low level weed dealer obsessed with his grandma who never once changes out of his pajama pants. The wheels always turns three or four times slower in Franco’s mind than in straight man Rogen’s, and you can see it on his face. It’s a broad character that we've already seen a million times, of course, but Franco infuses it with unfakeable sincerity and affection and makes it feel new and funny again.
The shaggy dog plot involves Rogen and Franco going on the run from drug dealers who want to kill them. The action is played fairly real, and that’s where a lot of the comedy comes from. There’s a very funny, very painful looking long, drawn-out fight between Rogen, Franco, and Franco’s mid-level drug supplier, played David Gordon Green’s 2nd Unit Director on George Washington, Danny McBride (seriously). McBride is hilarious in Pineapple as a big, lovable slob who endures horrible physical abuse throughout the movie and who routinely sell his friends out at any opportunity. One of the great things about The Pineapple Express is seeing a new face like McBride’s in a big role, rather than the same character actor faces we’ve seen a million times (in other words, thank god they didn’t cast Horatio Sanz in this role).
Also of note is 21 year-old Amber Heard, who plays Rogen’s high school-aged girlfriend here. Her performance is good. The reason I’m noting her here is that she is fucking smoking hot. Keep an eye on her. The black guy who runs the warehouse in The Office and the cousin who Leonardo DiCarprio uses as his in to Jack Nicholson’s gang in The Departed play the two heavies tracking the heroes down. They’re given some nice comic bits and help round out the excellent cast.
The movie’s comprised of great lines, great line readings, and very painful fights between people who don’t usually get in fights. The action is played real enough that you actually wince when bad things happen—a welcome change from the action we see in most broad comedies. I guess Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are having some positive influences on things. David Gordon Green pretty much gets out of the way and lets the comedy and action play as they will. That’s a pretty wise move considering the strength of the script and the performances, but The Pineapple Express feels like it was kind of directed anonymously, and there wasn’t any reason to entice Green out of his prestigious indie niche. That might be selling him short—the performances are mostly fantastic, and as the director he held the reigns on how broad to let them go—but The Pineapple Express is not going to shoot Green’s star to the top.
This movie is Seth Rogen’s, who, again, seems to be positioning himself as the next Albert Brooks. Harold Ramis played Rogen’s dad in his breakthrough role in Knocked Up, but it should have been Brooks. In The Pineapple Express, the similarities of persona are uncanny. Brooks is a doughy Jewish guy who’s smarter than everyone else in his movies and spends most of the time wringing his hands over the hot water he’s inadvertently landed himself in and the stupidity of everyone around him. In Pineapple Express, Seth Rogen is a doughy Jewish guy who (finish sentence exactly as the last one). They even look alike.
Albert Brooks wisely doesn’t appear in very many movies he doesn’t write, and that might be sage advice for Seth Rogen to follow. Brooks and Rogen are excellent writers with great on-screen comedic presences, but their ranges are extremely limited. They also specialize in a certain kind of character (the hand-wringing straight guy who complains all the time about the intrusiveness of the outside world) that works great in the right material but can get very tiresome if seen too often. Rogen is going to offered a lot of stuff after the success of Knocked Up and the likely success of The Pineapple Express, and if I were his manager, I’d tell him to take his time picking his parts. Studios try to put hot comedians in as many movies as possible while they’re still hot these days. They plaster their mugs across every available media outlet in multimillion dollar campaigns and quickly wear the public’s welcome of the new star out very, very quickly (anybody stoked to see the next Ben Stiller movie? How about Vince Vaughan? Jack Black?). It’s pretty tempting to say yes to all that money and all that attention, but if Rogen’s smart, he’ll avoid this trap.
Maybe “smart”’s not the right word. If Rogen wants to be cool and rich, he’ll stick mostly to parts that he writes for himself. If he wants to be uncool and super-rich, he’ll take every role offered to him. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Seth Rogen is in the sweet spot of his career–the Rise. And The Pineapple Express is like Seth Rogen—funny, unpretentious, and surprisingly enjoyable. Let’s both him and us enjoy this while it lasts.