I don’t need to defend that Pineapple Express is a great movie. Even now almost ten years later it still fits in perfectly with its comedic sentiments that the Apatow crowd kicked off in the mid 2000s. What I actually have to defend is why I picked it as my favorite film of 2008 on a recent best films by year list. 2008 premiered some genre defining films like The Dark Knight andIron Man and some fantastic comedies like In Bruges and Tropic Thunder which where were equally surprising R rated hits (Bruges more for its cult status). But Express stands out for its effect on the future of studio comedy. It ultimately changed my perspective on Seth Rogen and my excitement towards the projects of his crew going forward.
By 2008, we were just embarking on the rise of bromantic comedies coined by Apatow in his producing and directing endeavors and I was 100% not sold on it. The two major Rogen features had been released the previous year, Superbad in which he was the co-writer and co-star that I actively disliked because of my rejection of Michael Cera as a leading man and that I didn’t connect with a monologue about drawing dicks and Knocked Up which like all Judd Apatow directed films is too long and meandering. Only in 2007 would you actually expect an audience to root for Katherine Heigl. I was yet to be impressed with the crop of actors who had come through the brief but beloved series of Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared. Then the Red BandPineapple Express trailer dropped. A game changer that I consider it a perfect trailer. It succinctly sets up the protagonists, Dale (Seth Rogen) and Saul (James Franco) and the plot, underscores it with “Paper Planes” which would introduce M.I.A. to the mainstream and contains some of the funniest lines. That could be perceived as a negative but they still play so well in scope of the feature. No matter what it got people excited.
Why I’m an advocate for this movie then and now was it really showed what these actors were capable of in the right hands. David Gordon Green is a fascinating director with his early career indie cred (George Washington, All The Real Girls), Express was his transition into bigger budget features. Different from Apatow who is a very point and shoot director, Green has the right kind of cinematic eye to make this movie work in the action genre. I like that it’s going for the 70’s exploitation aesthetic with a brown and yellow color pallet and vintage wipes but never drawing so much attention to make it feel like a cheap parody. From a visual standpoint it looks like a real action film with car chases and explosions. What elevates it to great comedy is how amateur everyone involved acts. It’s a story that involves drug kingpins, corrupt cops and the Chinese mafia and we’re following a low level process server and his weed dealer who improvise their way out of every situation. The film sets up big fight scenes that Jason Statham would destroy in and instead you have Danny McBride throwing ashtrays and Rogen retaliating with a DustBuster attack. They’re ineptness to be smooth or subtle is the best driving force of the plot.
What this film gets right is how tight the storytelling is, never becoming too convoluted because it’s mostly Dale and Saul being chased by a particular villain. There’s still room to breathe or in this case get high and have montages like hanging out in the woods or selling weed to middle schoolers. The stakes are still present but you’re not rushed to get to the next location. My favorite scene in the entire film is Dale breaking up with his high school age girlfriend Angie (Amber Heard). It’s a brilliant subplot that expresses what a loser he is which he doesn’t believe himself until she proposes marriage amidst the crisis. It’s the best “I’ve made a huge mistake” type of line delivery from Rogen next to Arrested Development. Also there’s no egregious cameos that has become such a staple of comedies currently. You don’t get distracted here unless an unexpected Ed Begley Jr scene takes you out of it. It’s a movie that values character actors rather than movie stars which I appreciate even though this is the film that would make some these actors blow.
Rogen in the audio comedy describes how he never expected this film to get made because of its genre fusion and that no one would allot that kind of budget for it. To me, films are always better when you don’t have carte blanche and have to creatively work around your constraints. With this passion and limitations as Rogen puts it, you get “the most expensive weed movie ever but…the cheapest action movie.” Though Green never was able to recapture the same magic no matter how much I defend Our Brand Is Crisis, Express very much informed Rogen and Goldberg’s directorial style in their recent ventures This Is The End and The Interview which have similar pacing and structure. I’m glad we’re still feeling the effects of what this dream team kicked off and that it still holds up with time. In a year where Slumdog Millionaire took home Best Picture, there’s a lot worse choices than a charming and funny marijuana/bromance movie.