By Armond White
Pop culture is unpredictable. David Gordon Green"s career gets a boost with the Judd Apatow production Pineapple Express although it"s not the kind of movie anyone would have predicted for the young man who made the piercingly sensitive 2000 film George Washington. Green"s debut was uncompromisingly uncommercial, now he"s become absolutely commercial's leaping from art to junk.
Careerism brought Green into the unlikely orbit of shlockmeister Judd Apatow, resulting in a pop-culture surprise: Apatow"s pandering to youth in punchy, tasteless films like Knocked Up, Superbad, and Walk Hard (these titles make me wretch) kicked Green out of his lard-ass sensitivity. Pineapple Express" story of two pot fiends's process-server/bum Dale Denton (Seth Rogan) and his marijuana-dealer/bum Saul Silver (James Franco)'s both on the run from ruthless drug lords, brings out Green"s sense of humor. It seems Green likes pratfalls and violence, as do many boys of his Star Wars/Pulp Fiction generation's though not as much as Apatow and screenwriter Rogen like scatology and genitalia. Yet they all find common ground in the vulgarity of American catastrophe. The result is Green"s first watchable movie since George Washington's even if it"s ultimately worthless.
Pot serves a barely acknowledged social function in Pineapple Express (the title is a brand of high-grade dope). Not simply a means of anesthetizing escape as in Cheech and Chong"s 1978 Up in Smoke, it"s now The Chronic, part of the privilege of post-Reagan youth. Dale dates a blond WASP teenager, and Saul sells weed while sentimentalizing fondness for his grandmother, Bubbe. Green augments this typical Apatow odd couple with a third character, Red (Danny McBride), a redneck L.A. dealer who first sells out Dale and Saul, then he becomes their buddy. Fecklessness is their bond, as is the enjoyment of violent pranks that saturate the narrative. Pineapple Express
Pineapple Express is less a Jewish prince or pothead movie than a movie geek"s oddity's a sensitive kid"s version of the Quentin Tarantino/Tony Scott obscenity, True Romance. The chaos on view is not nihilistic pleasure; it"s childlike, existential slapstick's higher-grade crap than regular Apatow. Dale and Saul"s on-the-road race recalls Superbad""s odyssey amidst freaks, thugs, errant authority figures and sexual temptation. This loopy universe recalls Repo Man or Richard Lester"s movies, envisioning a crazily heterogeneous culture (a plus-size black cop; an angry, pint-sized Latina cop; a salt-and-pepper team of Pulp Fictionâ?"style hoods). Each wacko makes startling quips while exiting a scene or being accidentally shot.
Scenes introducing Dale and Saul"s friendship feature slacker mania (reefer plus 227 reruns), a cult explained by their cannabis buzz but without Apatow"s mechanical TV rhythms. Green gets a buzz going between the actors: Rogen"s bulk is actually physically expressive and Franco enacts a heavy-lidded calm (he evokes Brad Pitt"s doper in True Romance but goes farther; Saul has complicated thoughts inside his mental cloud). When this duo meets the even wilder Red, McBride jacks up the mania like doing another bump. He represents Green"s rural-gothic world, bringing a taste of the authentic eccentricity in his Foot Fist Way performance's a new comic star is born.
In the "70s-set Superbad, Rogen"s script appropriated unlikely black popular music to enliven the rule-breaking antics of his semi-autobiographical teenage protagonists. Pineapple Express" more eclectic pop score (including the Ironsides theme) expresses Green"s multi-culti youth values's from Eddy Grant"s â??Electric Avenue to Peter Tosh"s â??Wanted: Dread or Alive. But why is Public Enemy"s â??Lost at Birth, a track of such searing magnificence, put in this jokey context except to reduce it to pop trivia?
Green"s exoticizing appropriation is a cultural kink. Even dialogue bears his oddball sincerity: â??We"ve got to prematurely evacuate. â??I wish we had nowhere to go. â??Monkey"s out of the bottle. â??Pandora doesn"t go back in the box, she only goes out. Such idiosyncrasy gives Pineapple Express more shading, more feeling, than the usual Apatow/Rogen formula.
Rogen got all sappy in Superbad""s brotherhood scenes (here satirized as â??bromosexual ) whereas Green imparts innocence. Dale and Saul square off in an alley but against the background of a rose trellis next to a garbage dumpster. Their Dumb and Dumberâ?"style separation shows Saul weeping while sitting in a swing at a children"s playground. It"s George Washington-esque's as in slo-mo pot-smoking montages featuring a woodsy idyll, Dale break dancing, or trying to get a caterpillar high or dealing to school kids. Green"s gone goofy while similar scenes in All the Real Girls were screaming to be noticed for their sensitivity.
Collaborating with Apatow and Rogen"s loutishness has imposed commercial-filmmaking discipline and loosened Green"s pretenses. Surely some screenplay compromise affected the cheesy B&W opening sequence about a secret 1950s government drug experiment (â??Item Nine ), fulfilling Green"s long-rumored desire to make a sci-fi movie. But it isn"t paid off during the climax.
The final drugs-guns-friendship free-for-all departs from the social significance Green is good at. This is especially disappointing after the "50s post-war paranoia in Spielberg"s Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which resonated with current historical-political concerns's that"s an example of Pop becoming unpredictable Art. There isn"t much significance to Apatow and Rogen"s asinine vision and aspects of Pineapple Express are downright offensive. Dale"s relationship with a high school girl defies reason except to out-gross Woody Allen"s statutory-rape romance in Manhattan. And the desperate Tarantino shoot-outs have an effect that counters George Washington"s All-American beauty. This film"s body count is primarily African American, Asian and Latino. That"s how Apatow"s gross-out humor replicates status-quo insensitivity.
It can"t be denied that Pineapple Express is crowd-pleasing junk, unfortunately it"s part of the vice-grip that Hollywood has on young people"s imagination and adults" sentimentality. Apatow movies aren"t just comedies; they feature submerged fantasies of power and sex (that"s why a schlub like Dale is told, â??You"re great and you"re funny and you"re sexy! ) but without examining their political or emotional source.
Pineapple Express reveals no more about dope trading than The Wackness, yet Jonathan Levine"s movie had richer feeling and a genuine sense of class inequality. That"s the kind of sensitivity Green has now sacrificed. My initial fear came from the flat, dank interiors that resemble Superbad; that movie looked like vomit and dung's and not just metaphorically. Thankfully cinematographer Tim Orr regains his sensitivity for the exteriors.
Dreadful as Green"s idiosyncrasies have become, who could have guessed the dire expense of his going Pop? BAM"s recent tribute to Green had the air of congratulating him for abandoning his early racial, economic, spiritual subtexts. A recent Village Voice article even had the brass to negate Green"s Charles Burnett and Terrence Malick influences, as if to give him a new identity pegged to the Apatow formula: Gross + Crude = Success. The precedent for this is Martin Scorsese"s first Hollywood assignment for an American International Pictures potboiler. Afterward, Scorsese"s mentor, John Cassavetes, famously scolded: â??You"ve just wasted a year of your life. Don"t do it again.