“Pineapple Express” – Mary Pols reviews

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Anyone who had even a passing acquaintance with the world of marijuana has met a Saul Silver, the ditzy, burn-out pot dealer James Franco embodies so perfectly in the hysterically funny “Pineapple Express.” Of that group, only a tiny subset would have given more than five minutes worth of thought to what makes a Saul Silver tick. You might have, briefly, felt sorry for his parents, but you’d most likely have favored the approach of Saul’s regular customer Dale Denton (Seth Rogen): get in and get out, baggie in hand, without making any emotional connection to the waste product. Why would you? Is there even any there, there? Saul is just a flaky husk of a man, wearing awful Guatemalan pants, draped in greasy hair and waxing eloquent about new and improved strains of pot and ways to get high.

Saul’s best asset is that he’s completely non-threatening, within the realm of drug dealers. And he has access to some of the kindest bud around, a strain called Pineapple Express, so potent and alluring that he refers to it as smelling like “God’s vagina.” He kindly shares some of the Pineapple Express with Dale, a professional process server and a customer Saul clearly holds in high esteem. Unfortunately for both of them, this pot is a little too unique. Dale drops a joint of it after witnessing a drug kingpin (Gary Cole) and his dirty cop girlfriend (Rosie Perez) committing a murder, and he may as well have left his calling card at the scene. Dale and Saul are forced on the run for the duration of the film, which like Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg’s last comedic outing, “Superbad,” takes place within a time frame of about 24 hours.

As with the other films in the Judd Apatow ouevre (Apatow produced and has a story credit on this one), “Pineapple Express” is unabashedly, realistically dirty-minded. But the raunch can’t obscure the film’s good intentions. Obviously, it wants to get you to nearly wet your pants laughing (and does). But the film would also like you to rethink a) your casual relationship with drugs (assuming you have one) and b) your previous disregard for a Saul Silver. As they did in “Superbad,” Rogen and Goldberg keep it small and pure. They aren’t trying to sell us on the notion that Saul is harboring a secret genius for say, botany. At the end of the film, he’s still a burnout, and a bumbler to boot, but he’s just as deserving of respect as any other human being.

While contemporary comedies have dealt with the notion of pot smoking as something thoroughly incorporated into the American lifestyle (“Harold and Kumar” most recently), “Pineapple Express” goes farther, examining the discomfort involved with enjoying something illegal.

Saul is in a sense, a “clean” dealer. He doesn’t mess with the hard stuff, and when a customer asks for a pharmaceutical drug, Saul is indignant; he’s got standards. From Dale’s viewpoint though, a dealer is a dealer. He assumes, since he’s dealing with a salesmen, that he’s being sold a bill of goods (instead of getting the royal treatment). Long ago, Dale decided he liked smoking pot, and that in order to obtain it, he’d have to hold his nose and deal with a slightly criminal element. It’s a necessary evil for someone who really likes to get high (unless you live say, in California and have the means of getting a medicinal marijuana card. For a great take on that, check out David Samuels’ fascinating piece in the 7/28 issue of the New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/07/28/080728fa_fact_samuels).

So does Dale’s disdain for Saul’s line of work make Dale a hypocrite? As written by Rogen and Goldberg, yes. He considers himself more morally upright than Saul, and the movie has a subtle side agenda to prove him wrong, to reveal that by participating, he’s just as much in the gutter as Saul. That’s a fairly complex moral underpinning for a big summer comedy loaded with goofy slapstick action sequences.

The movie is directed by indie showman David Gordon Green, whose languid style in “George Washington” and “All the Real Girls” made him a name, but apparently not much of an income. Green’s films have seemed humorless, but it turns out, he does know something about comedy. Green puts his first big studio picture through some interesting stylistic paces. It starts slowly, with Dale and Saul talking, in a sequence that evolves as gently and naturalistically as a Richard Linklater film. Then as the sense that there’s trouble brewing builds, Green dips into Hitchcockian influences, by way of 1970s schlock.

The only disappointment lies with the action romp that takes up the last half of the film and indulges every youthful, male-oriented interest in guns, weaponry and explosions, with even a touch of “Weekend at Bernie’s” style foolishness involving a third goofball played by Danny McBride. The slapstick is wild, gory (there some gratuitous stuff involving Dale’s ear being shot off) and funny, but it goes on far too long. When the characters are this great, you want them do something more interesting than get bopped on the head repeatedly.

This is Franco’s movie. He’s hilarious, charming, sweet and barely recognizable. In “Freaks and Geeks” he was irresistible as the cool, sexy boy with a vulnerable side. But here he manages to shed his innate sexiness (no mean feat) in order to transform himself into someone neutered by drug use. Well, maybe not entirely. I remember mocking a review of “Superbad” by the New Yorker’s David Denby which suggested that there was a strong homoerotic undercurrent between Michael Cera and Jonah Hill’s characters. “As if boys can’t just love each other,” I scoffed. But in “Pineapple Express,” Saul directs enough loving and longing looks at Dale that I did start to wonder. Of course, it’s possible he was just high. Or maybe something had wafted out of this intoxicating movie and skewed my perspective.

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Mary F. Pols

Mary Farrington Pols is the film critic for the Contra Costa Times.