Up in Smoke

Walking out of so many bad movies, it’s easy to be tempted to exclaim about the filmmakers, “What were they smoking?” In Pineapple Express, that’s never in question. That’s because Express is a movie proudly for, about, and (presumably) by potheads, a fact which is both its charm and its downfall. Sure, it’s goofy, lighthearted, and affable, but it’s also poorly conceived, lazy, and — frankly — rather tiring. Like a visit from a gang of collegiate stoner friends, it starts out funny enough, but quickly grows sophomoric and eventually wears out its welcome entirely. Puff away, you think, but some of us have work to do.

Pineapple Express doesn’t so much tell a story as string together a series of wacky, arbitrary comic episodes.

Seth Rogen and James Franco play a dopey pot-smoking duo — Rogen the buyer, Franco his dealer — who, after witnessing a murder, find themselves on the run from a slimy drug lord (Gary Cole). The script by Rogen and Evan Goldberg is lazy and aimless, noodling along from misadventure to misadventure — they smoke weed with kids, get lost in the woods, tussle with Cole’s thugs — working in a few minor conflicts with Rogen’s girlfriend, while stopping, quite literally, for periodic smoke breaks.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s all rather poorly thought out. Scenes go on far too long, dialog trails off, and much of the film seem to be edited to the yawning rhythms of late night philosophy jam sessions. Plot threads appear and disappear like puffs of smoke. (The girlfriend storyline, in particular, simply seems to vanish about two thirds of the way through the film.) The enthusiastic marijuana usage is the only thing that really ties the film together, though the regular pot pit-stops — which appear with the regularity of pop-song choruses — don’t serve much purpose except, presumably, to let future DVD audiences know it’s time to light up again. Admittedly, the lack of pretense is somewhat charming. But the constant digressions become more frustrating than funny by the finale.

That said, the rambling structure plays to the strengths of the leads. As stoner team-ups go, you could certainly score worse than James Franco and Seth Rogen. The two actors, both veterans of producer Judd Apatow’s short-lived TV series Freaks and Geeks, make a thoroughly amiable pair — far less grating than Cheech and Chong and arguably more accessible than Harold and Kumar. Certainly, the two have an easy give and take, and they clearly enjoy substance-fueled riffing off of each other. But comic chemistry — even chemically aided — only goes so far. As comic characters, neither is ever defined quite well enough. Rogen’s the uptight one with a straight job; Franco’s a greasy-haired space-cadet. Yet that’s all we get, meaning their shtick never develops beyond the obvious conflicts between the slacker and the hapless, anxiety-prone 9-5er — and attempts to do so are interrupted by brain-cell killing smoke-outs.

So it’s hardly a shock, then, that the film doesn’t display much in the way of judgment. Cole’s drug kingpin is an unapologetic murderer, and the movie often resorts to violence for laughs. The problem, though, is that the violence is too gruesome, too grisly, and doesn’t mesh well with the film’s mostly innocent, playful vibe. It’s possible to make a movie that’s both extremely violent and extremely funny — see Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films for starters — but Pineapple Express never achieves the necessary level of cartoonish absurdity. For violence to be funny, it can’t also seem real, even a little. Indeed, the film seems unable to comprehend the difference between absurdist cartoon violence and the squirm-inducing real stuff. So as the movie’s played-for-laughs cruelty escalates, the results are increasingly unpleasant to watch.

More broadly, a similar lack of self-awareness plagues the film, which tends to come off as a hunt for ways to amuse itself, but not much more. That’s entertaining enough to watch for a little while, but eventually you start wishing it would make an effort to entertain the audience and not just the filmmakers. All of which is to say that Pineapple Express, while occasionally somewhat funny, isn’t a very good movie — though that’s probably beside the point: It never had any ambition to be one anyway.