A few years ago, I tried to reconnect with a college friend who had never stopped smoking marijuana daily for three decades. We were sitting in a diner at twilight, and when the sun sank so low that you couldn't see the french fries in front of you, and the manager turned the lights on, I suddenly heard, "Wwwoh-oh-oh" - and there was my old pal, startled by standard restaurant illumination. It was funny, but it was pathetic, too.
So is the new Judd Apatow production, Pineapple Express, except for me, it was less funny and a lot more pathetic. Pineapple Express (named for some killer weed) centers on a stoner (Seth Rogen) and a dealer (James Franco) on the run from a loathsome drug kingpin (Gary Cole) and a crooked cop (Rosie Perez). The plot is merely an excuse for the audience to get a giddy hit off some heady secondhand smoke while laughing and cheering at cartoon sadism that attempts (and fails) to put the slap back in slapstick.
With a script by Knocked Up star Rogen and Evan Goldberg (the same writing team that did Superbad) and direction by cult director David Gordon Green (George Washington), Pineapple Express mixes pot comedy with a parody of big-screen cops and felons in the manner of the British hit Hot Fuzz. But it's not exactly Hot Grass; indeed, under any name it's not so hot.
Franco, usually cast as a heartthrob, has a ball (or should I say bong?) playing a dealer who smokes his own stuff and reduces his synapses to vapors. A tour de force like this, all fuzzy curlicues, needs a straight man, not a kibitzer like Rogen, who dithers his performance away with flashes of anxiety and rue.
The introductory scenes depict Rogen's character doing his daily work as a process-server. He's a man of a thousand disguises, donning any type of uniform so he can ambush targets with those dreaded words, "You've been served." He and the rest of the filmmakers don't realize that this functioning member of society with a taste for weed is more fun than the character Rogen becomes: the reluctant best friend to a good-hearted marijuana middleman. Rogen transforms himself into an oscillating blob.
Much of the film's escalating violence centers on the dealer's other friend (and fellow dealer), played by Danny McBride, who knows how to make unreliability ticklish and surprising. He's like a human punching bag that punches back. He uses all his performing gumption in a lost cause. Before you can say "three stooges," his characterization caves into the thudding body blows of Green's chaotic direction. This movie operates like a smiling bully who thinks it's funny to get you to cry uncle.
Pineapple Express overflows with the Apatow gang's group obsessions, including the romantic mismatch between a sloppy, semi-bohemian guy and a conventional middle-class beauty. Here they're so perfunctory they're like something off the screenwriters' "to-do" list. Still, the preview audience appeared to be going merrily insane.
How much you enjoy Pineapple Express may depend on what associations (or substances) you bring into the theater with you. As an action comedy, it's just a bad trip.
Watch a preview from Pineapple Express at baltimoresun.com/pineapple
(Columbia Pictures) Starring Seth Rogen, James Franco. Directed by David Gordon Green. Rated R for pervasive language, drug use, sexual references and violence. Time 111 minutes.