The latest gagfest from the Judd Apatow Boys’ Club Factory, Pineapple Express, throws gross-out violence into the usual mix of substance abuse and raunch; it’s like an R-rated Three Stooges comedy with Moe ripping bloody chunks from Larry’s scalp and poking out Curly’s eyes. Seth Rogen, who co-wrote the film with Evan Goldberg, is Dale Denton, a pothead process-server who witnesses a (brain-spattering) drug-related murder and lams it with his addled dealer, Saul (James Franco). There’s a what-the-hell, nihilistic quality to all the doping and slapstick and gore that can be—depending on your mood and biochemistry—very appealing. But Pineapple Express, unlike Rogen and Goldberg’s triumphant last effort, Superbad, is a tad deficient in the human-feeling department. It’s empty and formulaic, with plotting that’s lazy even by stoner-comedy standards. Without all the yuck-o sight gags, it would be a huge bummer.
With them, of course, it will be a gargantuan dog-days hit; the audience I saw it with (mostly real people, not press) got a contact high from all the head-bashing and bone-crunching. I cackled a fair bit, too. There’s a fight between Rogen and Danny McBride as the infantile dealer’s dealer (one rung below the homicidal kingpin) that’s great fun if you like watching fat spazzes throw each other over furniture. And Franco is fabulous. In loose striped pants, his hair long and floppy, he shows off his radiant good nature; even his irritability carries a wisp of childlike wonder. Some bad decades—heroin overdoses, the crack-cocaine epidemic—took a lot of the whoopee out of drug humor, and it’s nice to be able to laugh again at people hacking up the contents of their lungs over humongous doobies. Good times.
It’s too bad the supposedly turbocharged grass that Dale and Saul smoke (it’s called “Pineapple Express”) unleashes no special powers; it’s doesn’t seem much different from the Hawaiian stuff that screwed up my sophomore year of college. In any case, the Apatow Factory takes an opportunistic attitude toward drugs: Wring as many gags out of them as possible, then make it clear that the heroes must set aside their bongs and spliffs and take responsibility for their (and their dependents’) lives. (It was entertaining to watch right-wing moralists tie themselves in knots over Knocked Up: “It’s pro-life—never mind the promiscuity and drugs!”) In Pineapple Express, the dysfunctional hero summons the will to descend on the underground lair of the kingpin (Gary Cole) and his spunky bad-cop sidekick (Rosie Perez) to save the life of his friend, so in 90 minutes we go from Cheech and Chong to Die Hard.
In Knocked Up, Rogen’s unself-conscious jabber had a hilarious charge: The more he rationalized his inadequacies, the lower your jaw dropped. Here that jabber feels like shtick—and, with all the echoes of Albert Brooks, secondhand shtick. Dale has a very cute blonde high-school girlfriend, but it’s even harder to fathom her attraction to him than it was Katherine Heigl’s. This is a very insular universe, arrested in some creepy (but financially bounteous) pubescent twilight zone. When Dale carries the limp Saul from a burning building (it echoes Superbad’s climax), it’s anyone’s guess if Rogen and Goldberg mean to underline or parody the homoeroticism of buddy pictures.
The director, David Gordon Green, makes a gung ho leap here from glacial indie art pictures (George Washington, Snow Angels) to the land of mainstream slob-comedy; the only distinctive touch he brings is wide-screen framing, which means a lot of dead space on the sides. But apart from a promising prologue with Bill Hader as a thirties marijuana test subject, the whole movie is dead space. In Hot Fuzz, the British team of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) mixed parody and gore in ways that made wheezy action-movie conventions feel invigoratingly strange. But Wright and Pegg’s comedy is rooted in a real place. Apatow and Rogen’s hails from a never-never land where fat stoners can play with guns and hit the bull’s-eye.
Elegy is a spare, melancholy film that is so far in spirit from its source, Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal, that I’m tempted to say we should abandon altogether the idea of adapting Roth. (I’d suggest Charlie Kaufman take a stab, except he made us watch him jump through hoops over Susan Orlean …) It’s not that Roth’s novels are too solipsistic; it’s that their solipsism is a Versailles-size hall of mirrors—endlessly doubling back and endlessly refracted. The Dying Animal—the third book to feature David Kepesh, who first appeared in The Professor of Desire (1977)—is a brief (for Roth) masterpiece that for all its twists and flashbacks and cultural musings reads as if it’s coming out in one urgent breath. The narrator has fancied himself carnality incarnate, with sex his revenge against the America of his youth (still in a Puritan stranglehold) and against death. (He is that explicit.) Now, in his sixties, his body failing, his sex drive more fierce than ever, he’s going back in his mind, to the anti-puritanical 1960s, when he asserted his freedom by ditching his wife and son and taking student lover after student lover. His latest, Consuela, might be his last—in any case, she’s the first he’s terrified of losing before he gets her into the sack.