Saturday, August 09, 2008
"Using women (and not only women) as plot functions may be a clue as to the shallowness of many movies, even of much better movies." - Pauline Kael, in her review of American Graffiti, which I coincidentally read a few hours before seeing Pineapple Express.
Pineapple Express is the shallowest of the better Judd Apatow productions, and not just because of Amber Heard's negligibility (solely representing the lead's irresponsibility is one step above solely representing his heterosexuality). Seth Rogen has praised test screening, but I wonder if extended time spent in that process (LA resident and long-time buddy TJ saw the movie many months ago, well before the red band trailer leaked) secured non-stop laughs at the expense of tone; the film seems more wanton than intended.
'Non-stop laughs' is part of why I feel a little bad about complaining. Rogen frequently gives interview love to Adam Sandler, and he may be doing that as a defense against high expectations, similar to Chris Rock's "hey, I think Eddie Murphy is funny" quotes. Compared to Opera Man's ouvre, or the cinematic output of any SNL class, Apatow's productions are regularly remarkable, with only two Jake Kasdan-directed turkeys and some Frat Pack b.s. mussing up his post-Freaks & Geeks track record. But as his improv-based style of joke packing is normalized, they'll either have to risk seriousness or find new ways to be zany. Walk Hard was bad Zucker, and the upcoming Year One sounds like bad Python, so Pineapple Express should be commended for taking on action comedy and not sucking outright. But the bumbling, surreal violence is only fitfully transcendent (David Gordon Green may be more of a visual stylist than former Undeclared writers, but his movies are still static and talky), and James Franco's beaming dealer - the kind of manchild you'd neither want nor expect to mature - is the only truly fresh character in the film.
As the comedy posse's gifts become familiar, their weaknesses become more grating. The second act bro-squabble, Superbad's sole groan, is tiredly reprised, and the LOL homoeroticism is getting pathological. Bystanders don't "eww" when characters accidentally imitate gay sex anymore, but the notion of two men being physically or emotionally intimate is still played purely for laughs. Superbad actually dealt with the emotions in a close male friendship and Jonah Hill has a career-wide subtext of repression (at the very least, his character should come out in the sequel). But in Express, the eyebrow-lifting insinuations seem like easy gags. None of these guys would say homosexuality is wrong, but there's no sense of whether they're mocking straight unease with gay specifics or coasting on it.
It's also distressing is that, for the first time, excellent comic actors are used as props. The hotel staff in Forgetting Sarah Marshall were all given great comic personas, so why cast Ken Jeong and Bobby Lee, possibly the two most recognizable Asian-American comedians not named John Cho, and then use them as Renny Harlin extras? Rogen told Hill to stay away from Transformers 2, but Michael Bay would have pulled a little more panache out of Gary Cole and Rosie Perez if they were his villains. Why hire them otherwise, right? It's possible the DVD bonus features will be chock full of supporting shines cut for time, but to see the atmosphere of comic generosity decrease around the edges is disheartening - I don't want Rogen to wind up riffing into a black hole like Chevy Chase in Fletch and beyond. The fifth or sixth best Apatow film (there is Talladega Nights...) is nothing to avoid, but I hope we haven't completed the canon.