Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Pineapple Express

Monday, August 25, 2008

Pineapple Express

Though I keep up a pretty steady pace on this blog, I'm not actually writing about every movie I see. Some get lost in the shuffle, often because I'm not sure what to say or else there just happen to be other things I want to discuss at the time. Last Friday, I went to see Pineapple Express on the big screen (my first such venture to the multiplexes since The Dark Knight a month ago). I laughed, enjoyed it, but never got around to doing an entry on it. Instead, I did another Twin Peaks episode, a reflection on Buster Keaton, and a last-minute entry in a blog-a-thon/kick-off for my own series. But I did respond to the Mad Hatter's review of Pineapple Express and, intrigued by my comment, he came to this site looking for my full-length write-up. Well, a few days later, here it is.


As Jim Emerson noted on scanners, "'Pineapple Express' is the movie that Rogen and Franco's characters, process server Dale Denton and dope dealer Saul Silver, would have hazily brainstormed while sitting on Saul's couch, smoking a fattie." A friend of mine drew a similar conclusion, predicting before the final reel that this was all the stoners' dream. There's no Wizard of Oz-like denouement here, but there's undoubtedly a lot of fantasy projection going on, as Pineapple Express sinks deeper and deeper into a kind of deadpan ridiculousness, never flat-out acknowleding how absurd its plot machinations and action sequences have become. But it's clearly aware. Pineapple Express reminds me, quite happily, of two things: the video-camera movies I made with friends in jr. high, drenched in ketchup/blood and populated by neon-colored water guns doubling as deadly pistols; and the movie my stoned cousin told me he wanted to write, about the Chinese invading the U.S. (and indeed one of the cartels in Pineapple Express is simply referred to as "the Asians").

Pineapple Express radiates good cheer and a kind of guileless sincerity (despite the fact that the filmmakers certainly knew what they were doing) as it couples its schlubby process server with a beautiful high-schooler, stages fight scenes with various marijuana paraphernalia, and unleashes comically graphic violence on its villains. Nothing in the screenplay is overtly clever; it really plays like something an imaginative but not especially sophisticated pothead might come up with. If anything gives the game away, it's the funny and well-written dialogue, but the character's lines never really target the film's form; they aren't self-referential and thus the action/suspense plot chugs along content in its delusions of grandeur (at least until the ending, a deconstruction of the movie's contrivances in a diner scene so amusing it approaches the status of comic masterpiece).

If the stoner characters really did write this movie, I think Franco's dealer, Saul Silver, took the lead. He's perpetually grinning, amused at his own situation, but not in any witty, ironic way. He's none too bright, but completely sincere. No doubt he invented all the plot contrivances, taking responsibility for the movie's structure and twists and turns. He's the one who decided that the shotgun-wielding father of Dale's girlfriend would leave them behind at the house for no apparent reason, and that later Dale and his girlfriend would get in a fight and break up, but they'd get back together at film's end (though he ultimately forgot to write these scenes). And it was certainly his idea to keep bringing Red, the traitorous middleman, back from the dead to rescue his buddies. Saul is Donald Kaufman in Adaptation, unaware of how cliched and silly his ideas are, but with a faith in them which endears him to the viewer. Unlike Donald, Saul's ideas are not high-concept, nor are they presented within the framework of an ironic metatext which prevents you from getting absorbed despite yourself.

Rogen's character, Dale Denton, smarter and meaner than Saul, was probably less able to function on the high-flying dope he hadn't smoked before. I'm sure he slumped on the couch, laughing at Saul's story developments and throwing in a funny line of dialogue here or there, sitting up just for a second to make sure he scored the hot chick. But mostly, he left the storytelling up to Saul.

Many have noted the similarities to 80s comedies, where the first two acts are taken up by gags and pratfalls, only to be replaced by played-for-serious action sequences at the end. Pineapple Express lets itself stray to just this side of ridiculousness (in a way that is not foregrounded, and hence could be missed) so that we know the action sequences are still part of the joke. Furthermore, these action scenes don't play like the action scenes of today, with fast cuts, blurry close-ups, and dark lighting. We can see everything that happens, flaming deaths are displayed in all their bloody well-lit glory, and clearly this is how the stoners, mired in 70s/80s culture (they watch "The Jeffersons" and listen to "Electric Avenue") would imagine their own climax: in the fashion of those goofy but fun actioners of years past, before everything got all serious.

The final scene finds our survivors in a diner recounting their night of mayhem. Here the slide into absurdity becomes pronounced (interesting that absurdity reaches its saturation point not when the boys are facing guns and explosions, but as they eat a stack of pancakes). Suddenly they are recounting everything that happened to them with relish and little need for embellishment (it was all so over-the-top to begin with). Best of all, Red - who has tried to kill the heroes and was almost killed by them (and the villains) - is bleeding to death but seems unconcerned as he laughs about their betrayals and rapprochements. "I hated you at first, I'm not gonna lie!" Dale chortles with Red high-fiving him in amusement. Saul mostly sits back and takes it all in, the satisfied auteur whose work is complete.

Of course, the movie does have an actual auteur at the helm - David Gordon Green, the young filmmaker whose idiosyncratic debut feature George Washington put him on the map (though out of the work I've seen I prefer Physical Pinball, a short film adapted - like Express - from someone else's screenplay). Here Green tends towards self-effacement, though he surfaces for the occasional slo-mo montage of characters goofing and hanging out in sun-dappled locales. No doubt this is generally appropriate for the material, as Green's portentous mise-en-scene would have been out of place here. But there is something disconcerting about the current trend in distinctive directors approaching genre material; the filmmaker's touches are no longer identifiable in formal elements but in themes and fleeting moments. Hitchcock may have worked in thrillers, and Ford in Westerns, and Hawks in every genre known to man, but their traces were observable in the way the story was told and the scenes unfolded. Here (as with Richard Linklater in School of Rock) the director is not an auteur hiding behind the structures of the genre but merely a gun-for-hire putting their uniqueness on hold.

Yet to be fair, no director could have wrested control of this film from Saul Silver and, to a lesser extent, Dale Denton. It's their baby and whatever charm it holds belongs mostly to them. The movie sagged a bit in the middle and (like Dale) I didn't much care for Red at first, but he's the best thing about the film by its end, the embodiment of its (seemingly) unself-conscious ridiculousness. In its casual, relaxed setup and the absurd conviction of its conclusion, Pineapple Express ultimately satisfies that desire we all have to see, as Godard says in one of my favorite movies (which Emerson references in his review), "the film we had dreamed, the film we all carried in our hearts, the film we wanted to make... and secretly wanted to live." Saul Silver has a vision, and whether or not we share it (though didn't we all as thirteen-year-olds?) it's a pleasure to partake. Or more to the point, that's some good shit he's got there.

7 comments:

James Hansen said...

Interesting take on the film here. Something you don't mention is that Dale, who you claim to maybe have written the movie, is played by Rogen who actually did write the script. I think the Rogen influence here, as well as in "Superbad", is as strong an influence as Apatow, Green, or Tim Orr. I think since he is an actor that tends to be downplayed a little bit, but his pot-smoking voice (aka- writing voice) is certainly on display.

I don't know if you read it or not, but Brandon's review over at Out 1 (http://out1.blogspot.com/2008/08/oh-its-potent-bro.html) makes a case for the film continuing to fit in Green's oeuvre. I'm not really an auteur criticism advocate (although framing discussions through the lens of a single director can be effective, I think it downplays all the other voices) so I won't try and argue whether it does or doesn't fit into his work as an auteur. However, it is an interesting case to be made, and discussed, regarding Green...and one that I am happy to read about.

Thanks for the post! I've been meaning to go back and post on your Blue Velvet review...I'll try and do that tonight. I've been crazy busy lately and haven't had much time to keep up with everyone's writing. I'm trying to catch up though!

MovieMan0283 said...

I definitely think most of Pineappele's sensibility belongs Rogen (& Evan Goldberg) - but still contend that Dale (perhaps as the host body to Rogen & Goldberg) is the true autuer. ;)

I haven't read Brandon's review yet but I will head over there soon and let you know what I think.

MovieMan0283 said...

Uh, make that Saul, not Dale.

The Mad Hatter said...

Now THAT was worth the wait - really well written piece. Keep 'em coming!

MovieMan0283 said...

Glad you enjoyed it - and thanks for the push.

Patrick Roberts said...

first half of Pineapple Express was about half as good as Knocked Up... the second half was almost as bad as Freddy God Fingered

MovieMan0283 said...

Patrick,

As you can see, I'd say it was a little more self-aware than Freddie Got Fingered (supposedly - haven't seen it).