Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Thu Aug 07, 2008 9:29 am 
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Not just another stoner movie. And yet, just another stoner movie.

You could say this is not just another stoner movie but lately none of them are. Greg Araki's recent Smiley Face had a fresh indie angle with its keen observations from a girl stoner's point of view. The new Harold and Kumar went political and ever more limits-pushing-ly gross. Well, for Pineapple Express, the Apatow group has hired regional indie director David Gordon Green, raring to try new genres. They've taken stoner action not to Guantanamo but rival criminal gangs, high above local pot dealer and customer--the story's starting point--into mayhem and violence.

But starting point is ending point and the violence seems incongruous. It's still not clear anything matters but dealer and customer. Pineapple is first and foremost a good-natured buddy picture, with those two the bud-buds. If the action reflects how a high might go terribly wrong, the guys seem to show good and bad, laid-back and uptight, responses to a cannabis high, both leading well away from material success, yet confirming friendship. To the two Freaks and Geeks alumni, Seth Rogen and James Franco (Rogen was a leading Geek and Franco was the number one Freak), is added amiable southerner Danny R. McBride, who started out as an actor in Green's All the Real Girls but transitioned to Apatow-world via the down-market school comedy, Drillbit Taylor. The proceedings are enriched by Green's knack for developing character in depth and lingering on good offbeat dialog. As always in the Apatow productions, best buddies are front and center, but after trying musical satire in Walk Hard last year, Apatow has turned things--paradoxically for stoners, who tend to sit around and then sit around some more--toward violent (if bumbling and offbeat) action.

The climax is a shootout in a gang's ganja factory. Seeking revenge, a malevolent team of ninja-clad Asians battles it out with the boys and local drug lord Ted Jones's mob with automatic weapons. Prior to that, more homely weaponry has been adopted, including vacuum cleaners and coffee pots. The mêlée causes the torching of masses of primo bud plants--a moment that should bring tears to any cannabis fancier's eyes--and wipes out the set in a very pretty explosion. But the dénouement mellows out again with breakfast at a diner where the three main guys declare undying friendship.

Freaks and Geeks, which was about high school misfits, died after a season; so did the Apatow first-year college TV series, Undeclared. At that time, asked how his series on the next stage of life might be entitled, Apatow suggested: "Unemployed?" Dale Denton (Rogen) is a process-server--not much of a job. He has one foot in high school; his girlfriend is still a student. When he goes there and sees her male friends, they're incredibly handsome, muscular guys who're funny and he feels like a loser. He wears a shlubby suit, but changes into costumes to sneak up on the people he subpoenas. Dale is a pothead, and so he has a close relationship with his current dealer, Saul Silver (James Franco)--a classic X-ed-out-eyed, smiley-faced, hippie-clad, greasy charmer whose greetings are "Peace out," and "One world," and who is his own best customer.

Nothing quite equals Rogen and Franco's ad-libbing almost Tarantino-esque conversation in their first on-screen meeting, before the troubles start, at Saul's ornately shabby apartment, whose "security" consists of a buzzer and voice speaker such as flats all had in the Thirties. This is when Saul introduces Dale to the new strain of weed called Pineapple Express. The name refers to some kind of Hawaiian tropical storm that allegedly blends plant and dirt in some magical way producing super-bud. It's a new item on the menu, and Dale is the first to get it. So when process-serving duties lead him to witness a gang wipe-out of what turns out to be an Asian rival at the house of Saul's distributor Ted Jones (TV vet Gary Cole) and he flees in terror leaving a Pineapple Express roach on the ground and trashing two cars with his rent-a-heap, he's drawn attention to himself and left a lethal calling card.

Franco's blissed-out charm as Saul, an understated blend of goofy and sexy, is a triumph. His droll performance, never failing to serve the action and the other cast members, anchors events and is the best thing in the movie. He and Rogen play off each other nicely, and for five golden minutes or so in their first scene together, the action is blissful and spells out in miniature all that is wonderful and all that is useless about stoner buddy-hood. Not long after, in contrasting Dale's nervousness with Saul's laid-back-ness, Rogen begins to ramp things up more than necessary, and the whole stoner vibe gets submerged in insane panic.

Don't ask me why after he sees the killing Dale has to rush back to Saul; stoner logic maybe. Buddy picture logic certainly. From then on they're on the lam together, with on-and-off meetings with Red (Danny R. McBride), Saul's middle man with whom the two fugitives, buddies now, develop a love-hate relationship that winds up ultimately in love.

What's wrong with all this, obviously, is that gunfights aren't actually very funny, though the filmmakers soften the intensity by having Red appear invulnerable. He gets shot twice in the torso and some time later is still sitting up, bloody but unbowed, at the breakfast table. That helps convey a sense that stuff isn't too serious. But those flying ninjas, even if funny, are from a different picture. Ted Jones's conspiratorial bond with a crooked lady cop (Rosie Perez) is strange and unappetizing. But on the other hand, if anybody can handle all this, it may be David Gordon Green. Still, as stoner movies go, this is a mixed success. Only the buddy moments and Franco's wacked-out charisma make it worthwhile. But Saul is a keeper. Primo.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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