Photo: Darren Michaels/Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

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.

Roth’s title brings something else to mind. Dying animals should be approached warily. They snap. They bite. The change to Elegy is sadly appropriate. Directed by Isabel Coixet from a screenplay by Nicholas Meyer, this is another winter-solstice-of-life picture, a slightly more risqué Away From Her. It’s Philip Roth, Canadian style. (Vancouver stands in, unconvincingly, for New York.) In the book, Kepesh extols the virtues of classical music—quintets, sonatas—as a way station between deep conversation and bed. Here it’s just classical music. Late in the film, Kepesh and Consuela walk along a beach, the sea the same gray as the sky. The soundtrack is Satie. The animalism, the bite, it’s now so much chin music.

Ben Kingsley is Kepesh. He wouldn’t be the first actor I’d cast (any more than I’d have cast Sir Anthony Hopkins as a closeted black man in The Human Stain), but I liked him. Sir Ben has lately been getting a lot of nookie onscreen. In The Wackness, he had his tongue down Mary-Kate Olsen’s throat. Now he’s making the beast with two backs with Penélope Cruz (as Consuela). He’s better looking than in his youth: still beaky, but his chest is built up and he radiates sexual confidence. He no longer makes you think of Gandhi. (The real Gandhi, of course, got a lot of nookie, but not Sir Ben’s.) Cruz does a hilarious turn as a hellcat in Woody Allen’s upcoming Vicky Cristina Barcelona, so you can’t blame her (or Kingsley) for the glacial pacing of her scenes. When Kingsley showed her the metronome on his piano, I wanted to reach into the screen and set it faster.

In between his scenes with Cruz, Kingsley plays squash and talks about sex with Dennis Hopper as his best friend, a poet. Even though their encounters have a slightly stale feel (it’s metronomical: one scene with Cruz, one scene with Hopper to talk about Cruz), the actors have a tender rapport. Roth has said in interviews that he expected age to bring the death of his parents, but no one told him how devastating it would be to lose dear friends. That pain comes through here. And in a film that’s partially about the emotional fallout of 1960s freedoms, Hopper’s aged visage has resonance. (So does the brief appearance of Deborah Harry, surprisingly vivid as his wife.)

Reading back, I see this is a rather harsh review of a movie made with intelligence and taste. But taste—at least when it’s this refined—is an obstacle to getting at the explosive hunger in every line of The Dying Animal. Satie … empty beaches … I scanned the surf in vain, hoping for something messy, jarring, with the reek of death. Where is the Montauk Monster when you need him?

Frozen River is unusually crafty for a Sundance-heralded socially conscious regional indie drama. After some evocative images (blue-gray ice, bridge to Canada, close-up of Melissa Leo suffering), the plot kicks into gear. The family’s new trailer home arrives, only Ray (Leo) can’t pay because her gambler husband has vanished with the cash. (Her younger son, who’d already packed his suitcase, watches, devastated.) Ray searches for her husband at the bus stop, also a Mohawk-run bingo hall, and finds his car in the lot and a young Mohawk woman, Lila (Misty Upham), with the keys. Ray pulls a gun on her, the gun switches hands a couple of times, they go see some sleazy people on the Canada side, and the two women end up joining forces (uneasily) to drive illegal immigrants across the frozen river into the U.S. It’s dangerous—but Ray’s spouse is awol, the Yankee Dollar won’t make her a manager, and she needs the money for that trailer and something more than popcorn for her two sons’ dinner.

The writer and director, Courtney Hunt, knows how to tell a story on film, and how to shoot her actors so they look as if they’re always in mid-thought—desperately trying to calculate their next moves. Melissa Leo has a lithe, alert body on a face that shows its living—she’s powerfully centered, like the movie. All in all, Frozen River is gripping stuff. Except it’s also rigged and cheaply manipulative. There’s a turn near the end involving a young Pakistani couple—for some reason Ray decides they’re terrorists—that’s outlandish on every conceivable level. And the ending … Surely Hunt didn’t mean to, but her testament to American gumption in the face of crushing poverty ends up affirming that crime pays, social consequences be damned.

When the red-band trailer for Pineapple Express “leaked” to YouTube, Entertainment Weekly flooded the zone, posting back-to-back articles suggesting that Apatow himself was the leaker and that Sony pulled it out of fear that the clip seemed to be “endorsing marijuana use to minors.” If you type in your name, date of birth, and Zip Code, you can enter the restricted section of the official site and watch for yourself. How inflammatory is it? We see drugs with paraphernalia, a blissful Rogen driving while smoking pot, a midwestern woman dropping the F-bomb, and, most memorably, Franco comparing the smell of pot to the scent of God’s “vagina.”

See Also
Why Frozen River Director Courtney Hunt Didn’t Make a Cute Movie

Pineapple Express
Directed by David Gordon Green.
Columbia Pictures. R.

Directed by Isabel Coixet.
Samuel Goldwyn Films. R.

Frozen River
Directed by Courtney Hunt.
Sony Pictures. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.