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Pineapple Express: Off the rails

Is Judd Apatow losing steam?

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I'm as guilty as the next guy. Last summer critics crowned filmmaker Judd Apatow the king of big-screen comedy following his hilarious hits Knocked Up, which he wrote and directed, and Superbad, which he co-wrote and produced. I wondered whether Apatow would follow in the footsteps of the beloved Hal Ashby as a crafter of wise but raucous humanist comedies.

One year later, the sight of Apatow Productions in film credits seems more like a warning sign than a seal of approval. The rival siblings of July 25's Step Brothers and the fugitive stoners of this Wednesday's Pineapple Express amount to a strikingly ineffectual one-two punch. Clearly last year's Apatow adulation set a standard that cannot or will not be met by every movie with his name on it. Apatow Productions doesn't guarantee smart laughs in the same way that, say, Pixar does.

Apatow's core movies comprise the clearly personal films he wrote and directed, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, plus, presumably, next year's Funny People with Adam Sandler. Then comes an inner circle of films he co-wrote or that otherwise involve protégés from the TV show "Freaks and Geeks," such as Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. His influence seems far more tangential on Will Ferrell's comedies Anchorman and Talladega Nights, the success of which helped secure green lights for Apatow's smaller-scale films.

If anything unifies these films, it's an abiding fondness for immature guys hanging out and insulting each other before making attempts at growing up. The "inner" films offer the kind of funny, natural-sounding conversation that ingratiates with the audience, making us feel like part of the gang. In the more peripheral Ferrell films, you sense that it's not the characters but the actors who are goofing off, improvising gags over sketchily drawn screenplays. It's the difference between loose plotting and lazy plotting.

Pineapple Express should be one of those inner-circle films. It stars Seth Rogen and James Franco of "Freaks and Geeks," and Rogen co-wrote the screenplay with his Superbad writing partner Evan Goldberg. (Apatow shares a story credit.) Instead, it may be the most disappointing film of the lot. Arguably it offers bigger laughs than the high school comedy Drillbit Taylor, which Rogen co-wrote under the Apatow shingle earlier this year, but who had high hopes for Drillbit?

Pineapple Express begins with a hilarious black-and-white prologue set in the 1930s that showcases Superbad's Bill Hader and creates an expectation for comedic inventiveness that Pineapple conspicuously fails to meet. In present-day Los Angeles, disgruntled process server Dale (Rogen) bonds with his friendly neighborhood pot dealer Saul (Franco) over a fresh shipment of "Pineapple Express," which Saul calls "The dopest dope I ever smoked." Rogen's grumpy terseness and Franco's bleary-eyed good cheer make them a promising comedy team. Rogen shows formidable prowess at inhaling, while Franco appears to spend the entire film in an anesthetized, pot-addled haze, following in the draggy footsteps of such esteemed tokers as Zonker Harris and Jeff Spicoli.

All too soon, Dale sees a drug supplier (Gary Cole) and a corrupt policewoman (Rosie Perez) commit murder, so Dale and Saul go on the run in the Los Angeles area. The only way the plot could be more clichéd would be if they drove cross-country with a satchel of stolen money. You watch Pineapple Express assuming that Apatow, et al. believed their involvement would elevate formulaic material into comedy gold, or that they settled for a project that would be an easy sell.

Bad enough is the off-putting violence that builds to a 1980s style shoot-out. Slapstick injuries include a fork to the back and an ear nicked with a bullet. Pineapple Express also follows the most predictable kind of buddy-film trajectory, in which the mismatched pair bickers, breaks up and then admit "BFFF" (Best Friends For Fucking ever) status by the end. Perhaps Pineapple Express' problem is that director David Gordon Green, who previously specialized in moody Southern indie films such as George Washington and Undertow, is too cerebral for a comedy that should be a stupid romp of the Harold & Kumar variety.

Step Brothers, one of those seemingly tenuous Apatow projects, also relies on a familiar friendship arc, and pushes the immaturity theme even harder. Ferrell and John C. Reilly (star of the Apatow production Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story), may be the most emotionally stunted man-boys in the Apatow oeuvre. Ferrell and Reilly play improbably childlike fortyish men raised by single parents. When Ferrell's mom marries Reilly's dad, their sons begin as despised roommates, then become bosom buddies who share each other's obsessions.

Of all the big comedies released so far this summer, Step Brothers could be called the least unfunny, offering a steady trickle of chuckles, if not a tidal wave of laughs. It relies on such familiar stereotypes as Star Wars geeks and would-be music stars, and hangs its conflicts on such a rickety structure that the humor has no staying power. It's like a tape that erases itself while you listen to it, wasting a formidably talented cast.

Near the end of Pineapple Express, some pals talk over their misadventures, and their conversation proves significantly funnier than the actual scenes did. It's one of the only moments in Pineapple Express that reveals Apatow Productions at its best, capturing the casual rhythms of speech and good-natured, foul-mouthed ribbing. The more his films show affection for their characters and fidelity to realism, the finer and funnier they turn out to be. If Apatow continues to churn out clichéd comedies that resemble other movies more than real life, the king will deserve to be deposed.

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