In the golden age of R-rated comedies—roughly, 1975 through 1982—there was much to gladden the hearts of 14-year-old boys: National Lampoon's Animal House, Caddyshack, Used Cars, Stripes. Now considered classics of the form, they all delivered on their promises of zany hijinks, hopelessly immature boy-men, and gratuitously topless women. It was a great time to be alive, if you could manage to sneak into the theater with your buddies.
Of course, it all went to hell with Porky's, which just plain sucked, and then the ultimately lame Police Academy movies. Once those unimaginative series petered out, studios decided there was no more money to be made in the exploitation of hormonal, under-age ticket-buyers. Thus, the nation was plunged into a dark age of PG-13 dominance, and romantic comedies starring former TV sitcom actors would rule our movie screens for the next 20 years—a period of unspeakable horror.
Thus, it's been quite a relief to witness the recent resurgence of R-rated comedies—I'd much rather be offended by a movie for its content than its lack of content. American Pie, Old School, Wedding Crashers… they all pretty much stink, but at least it's a pungent input compared to tasteless (in the sensory sense) non-experiences like Rumor Has It. Don't you remember that one? Neither do I! But according to the Internet, it starred Jennifer Anniston and Mark Ruffalo, and was directed by former good director Rob Reiner. Likewise, does anyone have recollections of Just Like Heaven, Made of Honor, Music and Lyrics… Just… Married… The Holi—… zzzzzz. (Wha? Oh, sorry about that. Relentless mediocrity makes me sleepy.)
So I find it difficult to get very upset with Judd Apatow and his nearly single-handed attempt to make R-rated comedies popular again. His movies don't have much in the way of plot, or pacing, or thematic points, really. But they do have some funny moments that echo real life, and they can cause more than one genuine belly laugh in a single sitting. Pineapple Express, which he produced, continues in the Apatow tradition of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, Walk Hard, and Step Brothers. Which is to say that it's a mixed bag of juvenile escapades perpetrated by guys who ought to be more grown-up by now—just like its '70s predecessors (except without the nudity).
Seth Rogan is a schlub par excellence, and in Pineapple Express he ratchets up his smart-yet-lazy persona to new heights of inadequacy. He plays Dale Denton, a process server with humble aspirations in life—he likes to get high and to see his girlfriend (who's still in high school). That's about it. After scoring some exceptionally rare weed from his foggy-headed dealer Saul (James Franco), he goes to serve a subpoena to one Ted Jones (Gary Cole)—and happens to witness Ted shooting another man in the head right in front of his picture window. (Bad planning, there.) And wouldn't you know it: Ted just happens to be Saul's big supplier. Although Ted doesn't catch Dale driving off from the scene of the crime, he does snag the roach that Dale left behind—and realizes it's his own strain of Pineapple Express. So, he sends his hitmen to trace the weed back to Dale, killing everyone else along the way.
Funny, right? Okay, it sounds more like a Scorsese murder-fest than a zany laugh riot, but the cast manages to turn it into a buddy-comedy-meets-thriller-parody, injecting their character sketches in between goofy chase scenes and brutal shootings.
With his sly asides and perma-paunch, Rogan is the prototypical slacker pal you wish would do more with himself—so you may find yourself rooting for him even as confesses his love for his girlfriend and then immediately puts the brakes on when she brings up marriage. A lovable oaf, Rogan navigates the terrain of underachievement so affably that you hope for a Hollywood ending where dreams are effortlessly achieved. (Thankfully, Pineapple Express avoids that trap.)
Meanwhile, although Franco puts in a convincing portrayal of a dim, sweet-natured pot dealer, the real discovery here is Danny McBride playing middleman dealer Red. The North Carolina actor (star and writer of The Foot Fist Way) creates an utterly bizarre—yet oddly believable—would-be drug lord who wears bad track suits and memorializes his deceased cat. And he cannot be killed, no matter what guns or explosives are inflicted upon him. It's a tour de force of silliness, and McBride immerses himself completely in the role.
By film's end, however, Pineapple Express becomes an over-the-top shoot 'em up, complete with graphic killings. Arthouse director David Gordon Green attempts to throw in real thrills amid the gags, but the gruesomeness is off-putting. (Seeing one of our heroes shoot off a dead person's foot makes it a tad difficult to empathize with him, for instance.) It highlights a common feature in most of Apatow's productions: The crying need for a strong-willed editor.
But newly post-pubescent boys have reason to cheer: Their hero has delivered another R-rated movie worth sneaking into.