Saturday, August 9, 2008
Pineapple Express proves that director David Gordon Green was a surprisingly apt choice to direct a stoner comedy. In retrospect, Green's low-key, off-kilter sense of humor is a perfect fit for this material, and clearly producer Judd Apatow, who always seems to have a keen sense for the right people to surround himself with, saw the qualities that Green could bring to this film. The result is a smooth union of Green's meditative eye for character and detail with the propulsive momentum of a script that segues from stoner humor into increasingly over-the-top action set pieces. The layering of different sensibilities and genres could easily have resulted in a mishmash of conflicting styles, but one of the miracles of Pineapple Express is that it all holds together quite naturally. It's a buddy movie, a raucous and raunchy comedy, and an explosive action flick, and in the midst of all of this there's still room for the film to slow down on occasion for the light touches of character and quirky detail that strongly bear Green's mark.
In this, Green is helped by a pair of fine actors who develop a completely believable chemistry with each other almost like romantic leads, a conceit that the film plays with frequently, much like the Apatow production Superbad. A common theme in Apatow's films is guy bonding, and his films often sideline romantic relationships to focus on guy/guy friendships. Even when sex drives the entire plot, as in Superbad, it's the friendships between the guys that ultimately matter. These films frequently exploit the male friendships for jokes on homosexuality, while also admitting that they're not totally kidding, that they really do love each other. They aren't afraid to hug or even kiss each other, and a real affection exists between the friends in these films that is seldom captured in the movies, and certainly not in Hollywood movies. It's consistently one of the most genuine and endearing elements in the Apatow-related films. In Pineapple Express, the heroes are the slacker Dale (Seth Rogen), who treats his job as a process server mainly as an excuse to smoke lots of pot and visit his high school girlfriend, and Saul (James Franco), Dale's clingy and brain-fried drug dealer. Saul wants to be buddies with his client, but Dale just wants to buy his drugs and get out, until he witnesses a murder and is forced to go to Saul for help.
The film's shift from languid stoner hang-out flick to action thriller is handled smoothly and almost seamlessly. The film is tonally varied, but it achieves its shifts not through sudden disruptions but subtle gradations the silliest stretches of comedy are also shot through with both violence and emotional warmth, while even the bloodiest action sequences have their moments of quirky humor. In one of the best scenes, Dale and Saul make a getaway in a cop car whose windshield has been totally obscured by red smoothies. Saul has the pot-inspired idea to try to kick out the glass, and instead gets his foot stuck through the windshield. Green films the resulting sequence with judicious use of the long view, which really emphasizes the absurdity of what's going on whenever the cop car comes careening around a corner with that sneakered foot sticking out of the front window. It's like staging a kung fu battle and then suddenly having one of the fighters throw a lemon meringue pie instead of a roundhouse kick; the merging of slapstick and brutal violence is one of the film's signature comedic techniques. There were more than a few scenes that made me think of Green's brilliant credit sequence for Undertow, in which he staged a chase where the main character gets a nail stuck through his foot with a wooden board attached, and has to hobble through the rest of the chase as a result. This queasy, comical sensibility drives the action of Pineapple Express.
The film is at its best when it exploits this tonal eclecticism to the fullest, and it's tempting to ascribe these moments to the intervention of Green, whose previous work has always been marked by this kind of stylistic catholicity. The film's best moments are inevitably the ones that most seem like they could've come from any Green film: a montage of Dale and Saul playing leapfrog in the woods, a shot of Saul crying into his hamburger on a playground as a forlorn little girl stares at him, the interplay between a duo of surprisingly sensitive thugs (Kevin Corrigan and Craig Robinson), one of whom only wants to get home to his wife at a decent hour for once, while the other worries that his partner has gone soft: "See, that's what I mean... You used to be ruthless." These moments of warmth and subtlety flesh out the film, elevating it from a hilarious and fanciful comedy into something more. In this respect, Green and Apatow are natural partners despite their aesthetic differences; they both make deeply humanistic films in which even the throw-away characters are infused with the kinds of quirky details that bring them to life. Even the villains here, the bloodthirsty drug lord Ted (Gary Cole) and his pet corrupt cop (Rosie Perez) get some moments of funny interplay that allow them to step, if only briefly, outside of their required stock villain roles, in order to suggest the characters existing beyond the clichés.
This playfulness with expectations and stereotypes is present at every level of the film, from the unexpected complexity of the relationship between the two hitmen to the way the film increasingly shuffles its romantic subplot off to the side. The relationship between Dale and his barely legal girlfriend Angie (Amber Heard) is initially a bit of a joke on Dale's loser status, then it becomes something more important, and then its role in the film is completely undermined by a hilarious telephone call. In this way, the romantic relationship goes from being an important plot point to being dismissed entirely, in a way that totally subverts expectations. The film sets up a stereotypical plot where Dale tries to get the girl back after screwing up, but then completely reverses directions with a line that recalls one of the TV series Arrested Development's key recurring jokes: "I've made a mistake." The script completely pulls the rug out from under what looked to be a weepy bit of melodrama, cutting this tender moment short with a complete 180-degree turn.
The film is stocked with these kind of moments, nodding towards the clichés of various genres only to subvert or riff on them. The concluding action sequence is an orgy of over-the-top action movie pastiche, throwing these stoner buddies into the middle of a fierce gun battle where they somehow manage to come out on top, completely clueless but still kicking some serious ass the awkward sidearm way they shoot machine guns is clearly not the right way to do it, but it's certainly the badass way to do it. I half-expected Bruce Willis to come crashing in at some point, yelling "yippee-ki-yay," but instead we got Danny McBride as the seemingly unkillable Red, who takes a staggering array of bullets but keeps coming. It's a brilliantly staged and hilarious scene, with the guys stumbling upon a fresh cache of guns whenever they run out of bullets, all culminating in the moment when Dale, having defeated the main bad guy, makes his play for a tough-guy catch-phrase. This all ends in the perfect way, with breakfast at a diner the equivalent of Harold and Kumar's long-awaited White Castle meal from another great stoner adventure flick where the trio of Dale, Saul, and Red essentially debrief each other, running over the film's best moments in a meta-commentary that co-opts the after-film discussion of the audience. These guys can't wait until the movie's over: they're bloody and full of bullets and waiting for Saul's grandma to come pick them up, and they want to relive all the kick-ass stuff they just did.