On the surface, Pineapple Express offers precisely what it advertises: a roll-'em-up, smoke-'em-up, blow-'em-up bromantic comedy from the freaks and geeks who have made Judd Apatow's brand of stunted-man yuks a global franchise. Once more, Seth Rogen's red-rimmed, half-shut eyes peek out from beneath his tousled Jewfro, which sits atop his broad, unshaven mug with that stoner's cockeyed grin. No longer schlepping home electronics (The 40-Year-Old Virgin) or dicking around with a porn website (Knocked Up), he's got a real job now — as a process server. It's a gig his Dale Denton likes because it allows him plenty of time to smoke weed in his car, visit his high-school girlfriend (Maxim cover girl Amber Heard) and play dress-up. (Dale pays homage to Chevy Chase's Fletch by delivering subpoenas to a doctor while swaddled in surgical scrubs.)
Joining Rogen again, years after NBC flunked their Freaks and Geeks in the midst of its one majestic season, is James Franco, once more cast as his pal and pusher. Franco's Saul Silver is the world's loneliest dope dealer, who spends his hours giggling to 227 reruns and hanging with his bubbe at the retirement home. He's a mensch, this one, offering the latest and greatest in marijuana hybrids: Pineapple Express, which smells "like God's vagina" and smokes "like killing a unicorn." It's this very strain of sticky icky that eventually lands the tandem in trouble, as Dale witnesses a murder committed by a dealer (Gary Cole, the master of deadpan dumb-ass cool) and a corrupt cop (Rosie Perez) — and leaves behind a roach that Cole's character can ID by taste and smell. In short order, the dopes are on the run, dodging bullets, wrecking cars...and falling in love with each other, as men are wont to do in Apatow productions, where the women have always been little more than superfluous accessories.
But that's just superficial stuff, the noise and nonsense of a plot that's beside the point. Pineapple Express is indeed a savvy nod to 1980s action comedies, down to the Huey Lewis original that plays over the end credits. But its greatest achievements lie in the details likely to be lost in a torrent of delighted audience squeals — the mumbled asides, the tossed-off non-sequiturs, the pop-culture (and Scott Baio) allusions and the unexpected respites in the midst of all the bang-bang-boom. Though the screenplay was penned by Rogen and pal Evan Goldberg — the duo whose Superbad was super so-so and super long — much credit must also be given to director David Gordon Green, a heretofore beloved arthouse craftsman whose last few films suggested an ache to bust out of the indieplex.
The insertion of Green into the now-familiar mix transforms Pineapple Express from the inevitable into the unexpected, from the ordinary into the extraordinary. Green and longtime cinematographer Tim Orr don't act like they're making an action movie; as far as they appear to be concerned, this is an idyllic romance occasionally interrupted by fisticuffs, gunplay or car chases — all of which are rendered with a realist's eye for detail, no matter how violently grim or glazed-eye goofy. The Pineapple Express trailer had all the warning signs of a kingdom out of control — the Superbad boys unleashed in a maddening haze of pot smoke, Cheech & Chong locked and loaded. Instead, Green and Orr bring surprising elegance to the proceedings. A scene during which Rogen and Franco play leapfrog in the woods is textbook Malick — a wondrous, poetic detour in a film that's eventually nothing but left turns.
Dale and Saul begin the film as strangers who do little more than conduct the occasional business transaction. But in a film mostly bereft of women — there are but three female roles, and two of them are cops — theirs becomes a full-blown love affair built upon accidental proposals ("Imagine I gave you a handjob...got you a handjob") that blossom into dry humping. Even their fights are foreplay, especially a brilliantly staged brawl pitting Dale and Saul against the dope-pushing middleman named Red — played by Danny McBride, the Foot Fist Way star who delivers gibberish with an authority's conviction. Three men who've never thrown a single punch in their entire lives brutally lay into each other, usually with a flick or kick to the nuts. The Rogen-Apatow collaboration has come a long way from the "You know I know you're gay" riffing in 40-Year-Old Virgin; at last, they're all the way out of the closet.
And don't be fooled by its head-shop appeal: Pineapple Express, like Knocked Up but ultimately much, much better, is a stoner's movie that ultimately decides it's time to put down the Bong Mitzvah (a water pipe purchased in Tel Aviv, natch) and get shit done. "We are not very functional when we're high," Dale tells Saul as they're on the verge of a more-or-less breakup; he dreams not of serving subpoenas, but of hosting a talk-radio show. The thought appalls Saul, who earlier was convinced that a car tuned to talk radio had committed suicide. But Saul has dreams, too: "I want to design septic tanks for playgrounds." At last, a Judd Apatow production worth memorizing.