Maybe it’s just me, but I find it bizarre how stoner comedies have been generally well received over the last few years. While I’m not suggesting they have had critics swooning out of approbation, they haven’t been as widely panned as you would expect for such low-brow comedy. Whether it is Harold and Kumar’s screwball quest for fast food or the Hollywood send-up in Jay and Silent Bob, there’s a likable quality to the genre’s crude and zany nature. Even more bizarre is that the genre has formed the basis of recent forays into art house cinema, with two limited release stoner comedies premiering at the Sundance Film Festival over the last couple of years. Of these films, The Wackness even emerged from the prestigious festival with an Audience Award. With this in mind, it’s no surprise to see comedy Juggernaut Judd Apatow (40 Year old Virgin, Knocked Up) produce his own take on being totally baked. The result? Pineapple Express; A mildly enjoyable film that’s probably only as funny as it thinks it is if you’re as high as Apatow’s salary.
Self confessed pothead Dale Denton (Seth Rogen), a 25 year-old process server, witnesses Drug Lord Ted Jones (Gary Cole) and corrupt female police officer Carol Brazier (Rosie Perez) commit a murder. When attempting to flee the scene, Dale leaves a roach containing the extremely rare cannabis strain Pineapple Express, which Ted instantly recognises. Not knowing who else to trust, Dale turns to his dim witted dealer Saul Silver (James Franco) for refuge and advice. However, it’s not long before the two are on the run from Jones’s henchmen, out to make sure Dale and Saul don’t live to tell the truth about the murder.
As you would expect, Pineapple Express is a film that focuses more on pot than its plot. It’s a good thing too, because once Saul and Dale’s adventure begins, the narrative takes a definite backseat. Yet Pineapple Express isn’t sure as to how wacky and offbeat it wants their adventure to be, subsequently struggling to find its niche. It’s certainly not as zany as Harold and Kumar’s adventures, as you won’t be seeing Saul and Dale ride a cheetah to a burger joint. However, I’m almost more willing to accept a cheetah as a mode of transport than seeing two stoners, whom are initially only capable of lighting a joint, ultimately fend off ninjas and successfully use AK-47’s all before the day is through.
Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh: it is a stoner comedy after all, but the material of Pineapple Express is too inconsistent to get away with such a leap. It suddenly goes from being a simple film about weed and friendship to an overly violent and gory B-grade action flick without good reason. The film may have been able to get away with the transition if it in turn produced more laughs, as Tropic Thunder managed to do more aptly when it took a violent turn. Yet when all of the films comic strength comes from its characters and dialogue, an all-out action conclusion is a big step in the wrong direction.
Before the bullets start flying, Pineapple Express is funny primarily for one reason: James Franco. For a mumbling stoner, Franco’s character Saul is particularly well developed and his delivery always spot on. It’s in the little things he mutters; be it his analogy of how rare Pineapple Express is to smoke (“it’s like killing a unicorn”) or his apprehension from being thrown into a underground holding cell (“What’s down there? A f***ing Rancor?”). All of it proves much funnier than Rogen’s offerings as Dale, which probably has to do with his more level headed persona. I think the big screen is seeing too much of Rogen of late, in what I like to call the ‘Will Ferrel effect’, making it difficult to see any of his recent characters apart from the immature and unwilling father-to-be that bought him fame in 2007’s Knocked Up. That being said, Rogen and Franco work well together and their buddy sub-plot gives the story some moral fibre. Another good combination arises from the two henchmen, Matheson and Budlofsky, whose humorous bickering keeps the film fun during the unfortunate scenes Franco doesn’t occupy.
Pineapple Express is a strange case of a comedy that succeeds when it’s least trying to, but ceases to be fun or funny as soon as it goes all out for laughs. James Franco’s performance, along with the help of other well formulated characters, manages to keep the film afloat even after the needlessly violent third act.
Follow the author Anders Wotzke on Twitter.