One Toke Over The Line

A stoner (Seth Rogen) and his dealer (James Franco) are forced to go on the run after one of them witnesses a cop commiting a murder. Video by Columbia Pictures
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 6, 2008

When I was growing up, my mom brought home a poster from a local hippie boutique that featured the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg standing in the snow with a sign that read "Pot is fun." (What can I say? She was a cool mom.) That image came back in a giddy rush during "Pineapple Express," a weed-fueled comedy that seems to have been designed to prove Ginsberg right. Written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg ("Superbad") with the Midas-touched Judd Apatow producing, this by turns inspired, goofy and finally weirdly hyper-violent celebration of male bonding and chronic Peter Panism joins such classics as "Up in Smoke" and the "Harold & Kumar" oeuvre in its sunny, raunchy acceptance of its own idiocy. But it's also shot through with a sly critique of drug laws that criminalize a substance as ubiquitous as those Showtime ads for "Weeds."

Rogen plays Dale, a process server and contented loser with a high school girlfriend and two overarching goals in life: getting high and staying high. Dale has a typical relationship with his weed man, the genial, dimwitted Saul (James Franco); he's friendly with him but on buy-days only, and when Saul attempts to deepen the friendship, telltale signs of panic ripple across Dale's face. But when Dale, getting high before serving a subpoena, witnesses a brutal murder, he runs back to Saul, to make sure the roach he left behind can't be tied to either of them. Turns out the pot he was smoking -- Pineapple Express -- is rare enough that they must both go on the lam, which turns into a life-or-death escape from corrupt police, a local drug kingpin and some angry Asian gangsters.

Like so many Apatow vehicles, "Pineapple Express" is geared to one demographic: libidinous and, in this case, slightly stoned teenage boys. The movie is jampacked with jokes, sight gags and set pieces guaranteed to appeal to the audience's sense of the preposterous: In one memorable scene, Saul, trying to hitch a ride on a lonely highway, plays a lewd visual joke by sticking a finger out of his fly.

The thing is, it's hilariously funny, in large part because Franco -- beloved to fans of Apatow's TV show "Freaks and Geeks" -- infuses Saul with so much charm and naivete. His hair a greasy mat and his eyes perpetually at half-mast, Franco does an astonishing job of masking his dark, slightly dangerous allure. Here, the actor whose bad-boy sexiness qualified him to play James Dean in a biopic turns up as a cheerfully addled modern-day Candide, a nice Jewish boy who is devoted to his "bubie" and has a knack for industrial design. (He invents a doobie shaped like a cross that he describes as the "apex of the vortex of joint technology.") Thanks to Saul and Franco's warm, sympathetic portrayal of him, "Pineapple Express" operates on a completely different level than broad, dumb-cluck yuks. When Saul tells Dale about a bridge "designed by my second favorite civil engineer," the way he delivers the line makes it clear that Franco will provide the movie with a layer of verve and commitment that will make it worth watching even for the stone-cold sober. (Apatow has enlisted art-house favorite David Gordon Green to direct "Pineapple Express," which no doubt explains the film's higher-than-usual production values for an Apatow venture.)

As the guys embark on their bumbling escapade, they're joined by a friend of Saul's named Red, played by Danny R. McBride in a scene-stealing turn featuring the signature Apatow combination of sociopathy and sweetness. McBride is also the purveyor -- or maybe victim -- of the most absurdist humor in "Pineapple Express," which finally turns his character into a virtual zombie.

Throughout his films, from "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" to "Knocked Up" and "Superbad," Apatow condemns and absolves men in one neat gesture, portraying them at their most bestial and insensitive but then daring the audience to dislike them. In "Pineapple Express," Dale, Saul and Red mess up, swear and, in one spectacularly dorky fight scene, go after one another, but even at their most mentally occluded, Apatow expects us to buy that they're essentially decent guys. As they did in "Superbad," Rogen and Goldberg introduce a whiff of homoeroticism when the wide-eyed Saul makes what may or may not be a pass at Dale before the latter makes a jittery escape.

Those subtle, evanescent touches are what make Apatow's films appealing even to filmgoers who don't fit his particular niche. But as rollicking a ride as "Pineapple Express" can be, even those who've turned their brains off long enough to enjoy it might find themselves ambushed by the film's climax: a bloody, protracted shootout in a bunker full of primo bud. Like just about every movie this summer, "Pineapple Express" includes a de rigueur sadistic Grand Guignol, ending things on a mean, aggressive note that threatens to kill what has been a pleasant, bros-to-the-end buzz. It's hard to imagine that even Mr. Ginsberg would see the fun in that.

Pineapple Express (113 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for pervasive profanity, drug use, sexual references and violence.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company