James Franco has been one of the blandest leading men in the last few years of cinema. I liked him in Freaks & Geeks a decade back, but somewhere between Tristan + Isolde, Annapolis, and Flyboys, I was ready to call out "FINIS! ENOUGH! No more James Franco!"
But, well, fuck me, because it turns out that James Franco is a comedic genius. Perhaps it lies in the novelty, but James Franco's deadpan, well-meaning, mentally sluggish stoner in Pineapple Express is one of the funniest onscreen characters of the last five years, and made me laugh out loud every few lines. If Harold and Kumar are the anti-pothead stereotypes - Ivy League-educated, whip smart financial and medical whiz kids - Franco's Saul Silver is the exact opposite, pushing the pothead stereotype to the brilliant cusp of parody and scoring a comedic home run in the process.
There's always an inherent risk to "weed movies" - occasionally they actually surround that element with independently good, well-written comedy (see the previously mentioned Harold & Kumar), but at least 80% of the time it's a lazy cop-out for easily-amused potheads in movies that repeatedly cry out "Weed! Lol!", no more intelligently than Epic Movie or Meet the Spartans cry out "Movies! Lol!" (see Half Baked, Grandma's Boy, a million other weed movies).
But except for one scene I'll discuss in a second, Pineapple Express is very much the former. Dumb potheads, excessive profanity, awkward situations, and comically heightened violence are notes many films both good and bad have incorporated, but Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's screenplay composes them into a minor symphony of comedic gusto, and strongly reminiscent of their earlier work on Superbad burns the innately hilarious latent homoeroticism between the two male leads through the whole picture, lending humor to every interaction whether the dialogue is blatantly comic or not. The way that Rogen and Franco's characters awkwardly interact at the beginning, bond through traumatic experiences, fight, break up, and get back together is more or less structured like 95% of cinematic romances (with the sole exception that they don't fuck in the end). And therein lies the genius.
Seth Rogen is just as talented a comic actor as screenwriter, and although James Franco steals the flick by far, Rogen makes a great straight man and reminded me why I'm a fan. Danny McBride is a consistently funny goofball sidekick (and also more than a bit homoerotic), Amber Heard is very likable as the sort-of-but-not-really romantic interest, and Ed Begley Jr. nearly wins the movie in his one scene as her shotgun-wielding father, if only for one line about what he wants to do to Seth Rogen in the street (again, homoerotic!). Gary Cole and Rosie Perez are just kind of there as the villains, they do fine but aren't that memorable. Being the villains, their heterosexuality is never in question.
The other element of the film is the action - watching Seth Rogen and James Franco just sit around talking and smoking pot is pretty funny, but they thankfully soon accidently instigate a blood, bullet, and explosion-laden drug war, lest we don't have a narrative. Although it's never really life-and-death exciting and aims more for heightened, surreal comedy, director David Gordon Green lends the action scenes an extremely energetic, fun touch. And I love that they don't shy away from R-rated violence to compliment their R-rated drugs and profanity in the least - many bullets are shot into heads, stomachs, chests, and other extremities, and blood, guts, and brains fly. And that's the stuff entertainment is made of.
The one part of the film I didn't like was the first five minutes, which features a flashback to a 1950s military bunker where they are experimenting with weed. Most of the scene is just Bill Hader smoking pot and acting goofy. It's way off the tone of the entire film and unlike the rest of the movie which uses weed to compliment the action and characters, is unfortunately just "Weed! Lol!" I was thankfully won over almost immediately after the first scene, but it starts the film off on the wrong foot and were I to edit the movie I just would have completely lopped it off.
But getting past that it joins Hot Fuzz, Kung Fu Hustle, and Planet Terror as one of the most entertaining action-comedies of the decade. I kind of hope James Franco doesn't do much more comedy (at least not another character like this), to let this stand as a wonderful, unique, timeless performance. And ending the film with a brand new Huey Lewis and the News theme song? Brilliant.
3 Stars out of 5