Bad Trips: Pineapple Express, Transsiberian
If you took last summer’s good-natured, geek-power comedy, Superbad, and spliced its DNA with one of those disposable 1980s action quickies in which Stallone, Schwarzenegger or Bronson racked up a double-digit body count while waging battle against crooked cops, drug runners and anyone else who got in their way — the mutant offspring might look a lot like Pineapple Express. The latest in this season’s product line from the House of (Judd) Apatow, this unwieldy mash-up of pothead paroxysms and aggressive action violence was written by Superbad scribes Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, who also stars as Dale Denton, a perpetually baked process server whose life philosophy seems to have been derived from the Toyes' standard “Smoke Two Joints.” Helping to keep Dale supplied is his laid-back, longhaired Jewish pot dealer, Saul (James Franco), who early in the movie offers Dale a sneak toke of the titular Hawaiian-import weed. “Smell it, it’s like God’s vagina,” he enthuses.
Like their previous collaboration, Rogen and Goldberg have conceived Pineapple Express as an escalating series of farcical complications ignited by a single instance of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In Superbad, that comic spark was a memorably absurd liquor-store holdup gone awry. Here, it’s a considerably grislier affair in which Dale witnesses a bigtime drug dealer (Gary Cole) and a cop (Rosie Perez) on the take ridding themselves of some unwanted Asian competition. So Dale and Saul go on the lam, pursued by Cole’s predictably inept hatchet men (played by Kevin Corrigan and the disarming Craig Robinson, last seen as the sensitive nightclub bouncer in Knocked Up). Before long, they cross paths with Saul’s supplier, Red, who’s played by a game-faced relative newcomer named Danny McBride (a veteran of the Apatow-produced Drillbit Taylor) in what is clearly intended as the movie’s scene-stealing sidekick role — a thick-necked McLovin’.
These have been renaissance years for the marijuana comedy, from the two Harold & Kumar romps to Anna Faris’ showstopping turn in the underrated Smiley Face. But Pineapple Express owes less to those movies (all variations on the patented Cheech & Chong formula, and all unambiguously pro-pot) than to off-kilter neo-screwball comedies like Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild and John Landis’ Into the Night, in which zany farce gives way to surprising jolts of realistic violence. That’s a tough balance to strike, and Pineapple Express doesn’t suffer for lack of trying. The first studio feature directed by indie darling David Gordon Green (George Washington, All the Real Girls), it ambles along breezily for a while, goosed by the pleasure of watching Franco, that most-überserious of young Method actors, let his hair down (literally) in a full-bodied comic performance. As the pickle-eating, bubbie-loving Saul, he seems to be occupying his own Zen planet in the movie’s chaotic universe, and when he shares the screen with his former Freaks and Geeks co-star Rogen, they have the relaxed comic timing of two old vaudeville pros. (Rogen, though, should beware of playing the loudmouthed slacker with an unreasonably hot girlfriend so many times that its familiarity begins to breed contempt.)
The X factor here is Green, who at the tender age of 33 has earned rapturous paeans from many critics but has always struck me as something of a crafty pastiche artist with honeyed, Terence Malick-esque lyricism to burn and almost nothing of substance to say. In a way, by switching gears to lowbrow, mainstream-comedy mode, he’s merely traded one form of pastiche for another, and the result seems at first to be Green’s most purely enjoyable film — the one least encumbered by its aspirations to Art. Certainly, Green is the most visually adept director to bat for team Apatow, resulting in a movie (shot in crisp widescreen by Green’s usual cinematographer, Tim Orr) that looks like a real movie instead of a big-budget TV pilot, complete with an amusing, black-and-white prologue set in the 1930s and made in the style of that era’s alarmist, antimarijuana propaganda films.
Even once the heavy artillery, exploding squibs and careening cars take over, there’s still a perverse fascination to the way Pineapple Express lurches haphazardly between stoned-out slapstick and action-movie theatrics. The problem, dare I say it, is that the movie just ... isn’t ... that ... funny. You want to like it. You want to give it the benefit of the doubt. But the longer it drags on, the less certain its tone becomes, and the more oppressive the bloodshed gets. This is, admittedly, a matter of degrees: When, in Pulp Fiction, John Travolta’s Vincent Vega accidentally blows the head off of a young punk named Marvin in the back seat of his car, it’s an iconic moment in contemporary screen comedy. In Pineapple Express, when Dale and Saul beat, stab and DustBuster (don’t ask) Red within an inch of his life, it’s simply unpleasant. And by the time one character bites the dust at the wrong end of a flaming Daewoo, I threw up my bong in despair.
“Did I go too far?” Dale asks at the end of one of the film’s more manic set pieces. Well, yes — kinda.
Rather than buying a ticket for the Pineapple Express, might I propose booking passage on the Transsiberian instead? Up until a couple of weeks ago, this nifty thriller from director Brad Anderson (Session 9, The Machinist), seemed about to bypass Los Angeles cinemas altogether on its way to DVD. But after becoming a surprise hit at Manhattan’s Paris Theatre, where it’s been playing since mid-July, the movie has been given a new lease on life by its distributor, First Look Studios. That’s good news for moviegoers, since Anderson’s unapologetically pulpy tale of strangers on a train is, like the locomotive film noirs it explicitly recalls (Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin and Rudolph Maté’s Union Station, among them), meant to be seen on the big screen.
Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer star as a wide-eyed Bible Belt couple journeying from Beijing to Moscow after a church-sponsored mission to China. En route, they share their train compartment with a pair of seasoned travelers — suave Spaniard Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and Seattle native Abby (Kate Mara) — who will immediately strike all but the most naive of audiences as something more (or less) than meets the eye. Elsewhere, there’s a cache of missing drugs and a grizzled Russian cop (Ben Kinglsey, turning the scenery to sawdust) in pursuit. Anyone who has ever read a mystery novel — or seen one of the Hostel movies — can wager a fair guess at how these jigsaw pieces fit together, but Anderson and his very fine cast keep things chugging along at a breathless pace, complete with a midfilm reversal of fortune nearly as unexpected as Psycho’s shower scene. All aboard!
PINEAPPLE EXPRESS | Directed by DAVID GORDON GREEN | Written by SETH ROGEN and EVAN GOLDBERG, from a story by JUDD APATOW, ROGEN and GOLDBERG | Produced by APATOW and SHAUNA ROBERTSON | Released by Columbia Pictures | Citywide
TRANSSIBERIAN | Directed by BRAD ANDERSON | Written by ANDERSON and WILL CONROY | Produced by JULIO FERNÁNDEZ | Released by First Look Studios | Monica 4-Plex, Playhouse 7, Town Center 5
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.