From the out-of-control teenagers in 1936's cautionary tale Reefer Madness to Anna Faris' zonked-out Cali gal in Gregg Araki's criminally underseen 2007 laugh riot Smiley Face, cinema history is littered with some indelible potheads. Now you can add one more name to that list: James Franco. In Pineapple Express, the umpteenth production to emerge from the Judd Apatow Comedy Factory this year, the former "Freaks & Geeks" heartthrob plays Saul Silver, a low-rent L.A. weed dealer whose vision of the world is perpetually clouded by a three-day-old marijuana haze. What distinguishes Saul from other run-of-the-mill stoners is the way Franco plays, or to be more accurate, underplays every scene. Most actors performing under the influence use the occasion to go big and broad, but Franco tacks in the opposite direction. Whenever the reefer hits the fan—which it frequently does throughout this wild action/comedy hybrid—Saul is almost alarmingly calm, particularly when compared to his excitable customer-turned-unwilling partner, Dale Denton (Seth Rogen).
A process server, aspiring radio talk-show host and all-around screw-up, Dale accidentally witnesses a murder while toking up in his car and lands himself and his dealer at the center of an elaborate plot that involves a local drug kingpin (Gary Cole), a crooked cop (Rosie Perez), Saul's redneck supplier Red (Danny McBride) and a competing crew of Asian gangsters.
In interviews, director David Gordon Green—finally making his mainstream debut after almost a decade as an indie darling—has regularly cited such dubious classics as Tango & Cash and Missing in Action as his primary influences in crafting Pineapple Express. Those relentlessly dumb shoot-’em-up flicks are, of course, light years removed from traditional pot comedies, and the film's dirty secret (one which the trailers have scrupulously managed to avoid giving away) is that it's much more of an action movie—not to mention far more violent—than you'd expect an Apatow production to be. In fact, some moviegoers may have a difficult time reconciling Pineapple's sudden bursts of bloodletting with its otherwise goofy story and characters. It would be one thing if the violence were as cartoonish as, say, the most recent Rambo picture, but Green admirably aims to bring the same realism to this film that he bestowed upon slice-of-life dramas like George Washington and All the Real Girls. So when a character in Express gets part of his ear bitten off, it doesn't erupt in a Peter Jackson-style geyser of blood; instead, Green shoots the gore with clinical precision, in a way that makes it even more shocking.
But Pineapple Express isn't all severed ears and bloody gunplay. Much of the movie is quite funny, although it never reaches the same delirious comic heights of The 40 Year Old Virgin and Superbad, which remain the gold standards of Apatow's burgeoning empire. Part of the problem is Green's inexperience at directing comedy. Over the course of his career, the director has honed a naturalistic, observational style that complements small-scale dramas like All the Real Girls, but is somewhat at odds with the rhythms of a buddy picture. Apatow, of course, famously employs a loose shooting style as well, but he's more adept at finding the best comic beats in each lengthy, improv-heavy scene. Throughout Pineapple Express, it often feels like Green just switched the camera on and let the actors loose until they figured out what the scene was supposed to be about.
It's a good thing, then, that the movie is filled with such reliable comic performers. Cole makes the most of his underwritten role as the movie's heavy, while McBride is funnier here than he was in his own star vehicle, The Foot Fist Way. Even better are Craig Robinson and Kevin Corrigan, who steal every scene they're in as Cole's bickering (and ambiguously gay) enforcers.
Interestingly, the one actor who isn't entirely on point is the film's ostensible star, Rogen, who turns his bluster factor up to 11—well past the legal limit. The actor has always been a better fit as an ensemble player than a leading man, and his limitations are more clearly on display in Express since he doesn't have his mentor Apatow guiding him through another performance. To his credit, though, Rogen doesn't try to cling to the spotlight. If anything, he cedes control of the movie to his co-star, and Franco seizes the opportunity to reinvent himself after a series of bland turns in misbegotten star vehicles like Annapolis and Flyboys. His performance is a marvel of comic timing and Method-like commitment to character. Except for the Academy's longstanding bias towards comedies (particularly those dealing with an illegal substance), there's no reason why Franco shouldn't be considered for a Best Supporting Actor nod. After all, if Heath Ledger is a legitimate contender for his turn as a comic-book psychopath, surely there's room for a slow-witted but well-meaning pot dealer..