4 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund
If I ran Hollywood, writer/director/producer Judd Apatow and his band of brazen brothers would be the only screwballs permitted to make screwball comedies. Following “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up,” “Superbad,” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Pineapple Express” is the fifth consecutive success for the reliably uproarious troupe which, in addition to Apatow (given producing and story credits here), includes frequent collaborators Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Jonah Hill and Jason Segel, each of whom have contributed in some way to most or all of these titles. Rogen and Goldberg, who also penned last year's “Superbad,” co-wrote “Express,” a stoner flick that, with as many punches thrown as there are joints passed, is as close as the gang has ever come to an action movie. They demonstrate a great respect for their audience while still eliciting tearful, nearly nonstop laughter -- a feat that no other current comedy creator can match. While Mike Myers is busy playing “Love Guru”s and Will Ferrell (who, admittedly, has been affiliated with Apatow Productions in the past but, by adding his own stupefying stamp, it's been for projects featuring a much lower laugh factor than the movies mentioned here) is going “Semi-Pro,” these guys are pulling the funny rug right out from under their feet.
Directed by company newcomer David Gordon Green (2004's underrated “Undertow”), “Express” will surely be dubbed the “(Cheech and Chong's) Up in Smoke” for a new generation, featuring two buddies whose not-so-recreational use of marijuana gets them into a heap of trouble. Dale Denton (Rogen), a lazy process server, gets introduced by his lazy dealer/best friend, Saul Silver (a clownish, career-best James Franco), to Pineapple Express, a new, rare strain of potent weed named after a meteorological phenomenon involving atmospheric moisture in the Hawaiian Islands (or something like that – it is explained, after all, by a pothead.) Saul is the only pusher in town who's got the stuff aside from top drug kingpin, Ted Jones (Gary Cole). When Dale unwittingly witnesses Jones and a crooked cop (Rosie Perez) off a member of a rival, Asian gang, his discarded, Pineapple joint links him and Saul to the scene. Almost immediately, Dale and Saul are on the run from Jones and his cohorts, who range from a soulful, emotional bodyguard to Red (Danny R. McBride), Saul's former friend and colleague, who's as resilient as a cockroach and as funny as any screen character in recent memory.
Less Cheech and Chong and more Thelma and Louise with man parts and cottonmouth, the irresponsible duo of Saul and Dale is made up of a well-meaning free spirit (Saul) and a morally conflicted voice of reason (Dale) who's less absent-minded than his perpetually stoned sidekick but no less liable for the pair's constant tight spots. Dale shows little to no interest in his job, other than the hit-and-run thrill of delivering subpoenas, and is dating a high school girl. Saul sits at home all day watching “The Jeffersons” and his idea of a fun evening is “looking up crazy stuff on the internet.” During their cat-and-mouse adventure, their combined poor judgment lands them in one predicament after another, from a wild car chase that involves a foot through a windshield to numerous, relentlessly funny fights (and these are no typical, Jackie Chan-type brawls in which guys take hits and get right back up – every blow hurts like hell and is all the more riotous for it.) The chaotic situations border on slapstick and are laced with f-bombs but are never stupid and Dale and Saul win you over despite their idiocies because of the genuine and, dare I say, cute rapport they develop.
One of the best things about the Apatow crew is that they're fully aware that comedy is in the details. They've got this genre down to a fail-safe recipe -- a wickedly zany mix of fresh writing, well-timed improv, killer performances (previously from females but, here, it's all about the boys), and bits of familiar stuff that's too kooky to be trite. In one of the fights, Red attacks Saul with a Dust Buster. In another, Saul gets stabbed with a fork. After Dale and Saul strand themselves in the woods, they hitchhike home in the cabin of a speedboat being hauled on a trailer. Red shows up for the film's finale in a beat up Daewoo Lanos. These specifics may seem immaterial in print but on film they're comedy gold. Rogen and Goldberg have also chosen to weave their vast knowledge of popular movies into their script, the irony of which anyone who's been to a Blockbuster in the last twenty years will catch. References are made to Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Walken, Jude Law, Ridley Scott's “Gladiator,” and John McTiernan's original “Die Hard.” Rogen even tapped Huey Lewis, who famously did the “Back to the Future” soundtrack, for “Express”'s theme song. He and his pals are part of a fresh generation of movie lovers now making movies for the next.
It's been reported that Sony Pictures allowed only a $25 million production budget, as opposed to the requested amount of $40 million, because “Express” is a “weed movie.” That it is, with nary a trace of a “don't do drugs” message. There's a scene during the film's climax in which Dale shares with Saul his epiphany that if they weren't always high, they'd be much more productive. A hint of an emerging moral center sparkles in Dale's eyes, but nothing to suggest a completely changed man. But would we want it any other way? These characters do undergo changes but not the type of drastic, unlikely changes that only occur in the movies. Apatow and co. have seen that too many times and love their audience too much to so blatantly insult their intelligence (a later scene features a brilliantly placed voice-over that even further nips this potential landslide in the bud). Are these guys better people by the end? Perhaps. Are they going to put down the bong and pick up a book? Don't hold your breath.