Thursday, February 12, 2009

Choking on Fumes, Together

Pineapple Express
DVD via Redbox

I saw Pineapple Express once before in the theaters, but I don't really remember all that much about it. I don't know if I have an untreated narcolepsy problem or if it's just that the chairs in my apartment are far less comfortable compared to the average cinema stadium seat, but two of the last three times I've been to see a movie out in the world I've slept through most of it. I read somewhere that AMC theaters is having a promotion where you can go and see all five Best Picture nominees back-to-back, including bottomless popcorn, but unless they're all as unflaggingly loud as The Dark Knight that's going to be a losing proposition for me.

Pineapple plays much better on DVD, even if it's still a disturbingly slack movie for what's allegedly a popular comedy. Director David Gordon Green's All the Real Girls, which I quite admired a few years ago, was a lovely, picturesque film but it was a million miles away in intent from this one. Green likes to point his camera and let his characters exist, which is not a bad thing in and of itself. But the secret, hidden hard work behind the success of Seth Rogen's last several movies (save the flop Zack & Miri Make a Porno, which was the outdated, overwritten handiwork of the incompetent and increasingly irrelevant Kevin Smith) was all of the tight cuts made weeks after the long days of improv. Superbad had two storylines to cut between when the jokes stopped landing, and in Knocked Up a traditional montage was never very far away. Improvisation within the bounds of painstakingly scripted frameworks has been Judd Apatow's stock in trade since "Freaks and Geeks," and as Rogen and Evan Goldberg's first effort without massive Apatow ghostwriting assistance, Pineapple Express sags like a true first screenplay.

There's tons of padding, both to get Rogen and Apatow's buddies work (Bill Hader, Ken Jeong, Ed Begley,  and Joe Lo Truglio are all funny guys but none of them have any business being in this movie) and to justify the overblown effects budget. The mistaken-identity actioner where everybody except the protagonists gets blown to shreds at the end is an established Hollywood subgenre at this point, but it's hardly the framework on which to hang a Seth Rogen pot comedy. Green is the wrong guy to direct comedy action, too -- the very, very long climax where Gary Cole, Craig Robinson, Rosie Perez, Jeong, and Kevin Corrigan all kill each other isn't funny and doesn't make any narrative sense at all. I'm not saying Bruce Ratner would have been any better, but at least the whole thing might have felt flashy and adrenaline-pumping rather than grubby and confusing. Perhaps they could have done a "guest director" bit a la Quentin Tarantino in Sin City.

But Green also helms the comedy scenes in a different manner than Paul Feig or Jay Chandrasekhar would have. He's more genuinely interested in the characters, particularly James Franco's sweetly dim Saul, than the gags they have to deliver. Another director from Apatow's stable would have moved these scenes along more quickly, and let Saul's essential neediness develop at a more gradual sitcom pace. The funniest scenes in the movie are the ones that play off right angles to the plot, as when Saul and Rogen's Dale play leapfrog in the woods or sell drugs to junior high kids. The best sequence in Pineapple Express is in fact an action scene, but not a serious one -- it's the one where Saul and Dale bust in to the home of Red (the gifted Danny McBride) and they all beat each other silly. This particular bit, which goes on for a while but doesn't drag like many other Express scenes, is physical comedy distilled to its root components. These are essentially goofy, nonviolent characters forced to fight by pressures they don't entirely understand, and the way they chafe against their instincts (Franco's timing, in particular, is lovely) is hilarious.

But again, the cartoon, Stooge-like resiliency of Rogen and Goldberg's characters on the page (Red is well-nigh unkillable; he should fight the Russian dude from "Lost") rubs wrong against Green's instincts as an essentially naturalistic director. When Dale loses a chunk of his ear to a bullet, it's really gross -- not funny gross, just gross. When Red's head gets smashed into a porcelain sink and then through a wall, it looks like it really hurts. When Robinson's Matheson gets flattened, it seems excessive. You can commit to gross-out comedy with a thinly concealed center of real affection for the characters, but then if you start killing most of them, it's going to be difficult for everything to square by the end. Not at all bad, and not as boring as I remember it being in the cinema, but not on the level of Superbad or Forgetting Sarah Marshall or the much slept-on Walk Hard.

1 comment:

  1. Totally agree about Pineapple Express. I put it in the same realm as Step Brothers in that they expect to put a bunch of funny guys in scenes and just hope they create comedic gold. Movies like Anchorman succeeded because they (seemed to at least) put a lot of time into the script and wrote out actual jokes. Sure there was some improvisation involved, but it was all kept grounded by the script.