When Pineapple Express was released in the summer of 2008, it was seen as a major departure for director David Gordon Green, best known at the time for well-observed character studies like George Washington (2000), All the Real Girls (2002), and Undertow (2004, with executive producer Terrence Malick). All got four stars from no less an authority than Roger Ebert, who called Green “a poet of cinema” and worried that his successful navigation of Pineapple Express’s stoner-logic action-comedy plot would make him “in demand by mainstream Hollywood.” When Green did indeed chase that success with two more studio comedies – Your Highness and The Sitter, both 2011, both of which Ebert mercilessly panned – the director’s admirers may have been justified in wondering whether they had lost “their” David Gordon Green for good. Those fears were quickly dispelled by the one-two punch of Prince Avalanche and Joe (both 2013), but on the occasion of Pineapple Express’s 10th anniversary, it’s high time we put Green’s detour into lowbrow entertainment into perspective.
On the commentary for George Washington, Green says, “As an audience member, I don’t necessarily want things to be laid out: first act, second act, third act, here’s how you feel, on the nose. It’s, like, let’s go see what’s under this broken window for a little bit.” That philosophy held true for his next three features as Green (as both writer and director) favored character study over plot mechanics, establishing a strong hangout vibe that inevitably gets punctured. The precedent for this was set by the accidental death of one of the young protagonists in George Washington, and is echoed by Paul Schneider’s falling-out with his best friend in All the Real Girls (over the fact that Schneider is dating his sister), the fratricide in Undertow, and the little girl going missing in Snow Angels (2008).
The same applies to Pineapple Express, the key difference being that the plot simply gets into gear earlier, with Seth Rogen’s process server witnessing a murder 22 minutes in and going on the run with his weed dealer. (In the more episodic Your Highness and The Sitter, the plots kick in even more quickly, a necessity in the latter’s case since its theatrical cut barely runs 76 minutes without credits.) Up until that point, screenwriters Rogen and Evan Goldberg (working from a story cooked up with producer Judd Apatow) take time to establish the characters of Dale (Rogen), whose job is flexible enough that he’s able to light up just about any time he pleases, and Saul (James Franco), whose service he requires fairly often in light of how much he smokes. Even after they’ve fled Saul’s apartment (a set crammed with so much detail – including a poster for the 1932 version of Scarface – it rivals the real locations Green and cinematographer Tim Orr were accustomed to shooting in), opportunities for the two of them to bond are abundant, as in the scene Green’s commentary cites as his favorite: the morning after they’ve spent the night in the woods when “the real dynamic between the characters […] really starts to shine.”
Much like George Washington periodically cuts away from its youthful leads to check in on the adults on the periphery of their lives, Pineapple Express finds time for the supporting characters in its world, paying closest attention to two hit men played by Kevin Corrigan, whose primary concern of late has been getting home on time to have dinner with his family, and Craig Robinson, who’s the one concerned about the growing rift between them. Similarly, Dale’s relationship with the high school girl he’s dating goes up in smoke, which echoes the trajectory of the tentative romance between Paul Schneider and Zooey Deschanel in All the Real Girls, as well as the one between Jamie Bell and Kristen Stewart in Undertow. Heck, George Washington even opens with a breakup scene (necessitated by the real-life breakup of two of the young actors in the film), which demonstrates that Green has been concerned with such matters from the very start.
Also carried over from All the Real Girls to Pineapple Express is Green’s canny casting of Danny McBride (another North Carolina School of the Arts alum) as a comic foil. Looking at them side by side, there’s not a lot of difference between Bust-Ass, who unwittingly comes between Schneider and Deschanel, and Red, the supplier who goes from ratting Rogen and Franco out to becoming best buds with them. Before that can happen, though, Red suffers the most abuse of any character that makes it out of Pineapple Express alive, getting shot several times and being on the receiving end of multiple beat-downs.
On the action front, Pineapple Express features more car chases and gunplay than Green had ever tackled before (or since, really). It has its precedent in the thriller Undertow, however, in which Green yielded to genre conventions for the first time with a story of two brothers who go on the run from their ex-con uncle after he murders their father over a stash of gold coins. A figure of menace on par with Robert Mitchum’s Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter (a clear inspiration), Josh Lucas’s Deel also prefigures Gary Cole’s ruthless drug lord Ted, who’s equally prone to flying off the handle at a moment’s notice. But where Undertow traffics in biblical allusions to Cain and Abel and Abraham and Isaac, Pineapple Express mostly falls back on Lazarus-like resurrections of seemingly dead characters – a veritable staple of action films.
There are no clear-cut villains in Green’s next film, Snow Angels, which boasts an ensemble cast including Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, Griffin Dunne, Nicky Katt, Tom Noonan, and Amy Sedaris. Its central character, though, is Arthur (Michael Angarano), an aimless high schooler cut from the same cloth as the unsupervised pre-teens in George Washington. Whereas they were messing around in an abandoned building when one of them had a fatal accident, Arthur is the one who finds the body of Beckinsale and Rockwell’s missing daughter, which is made all the more traumatic by the fact that he’s high when he does it. This links him to Dale, who was high when he witnessed the murder that puts his life in danger and keeps getting high with Saul in spite of the danger they continue to be in. Unlike his spaced-out dealer, though, Dale has a modicum of self-awareness about their situation.
“In case you haven’t noticed, which you haven’t, because from what I can tell you never notice anything, ever,” he says right before they part ways, “we are not very functional when we’re high, which is all the f****** time.” Functional or not, audiences responded to Pineapple Express’s mix of stoner comedy and take-no-prisoners action in a big way. With its $87 million domestic take, it remains Green’s most successful film to date, out-grossing all his others combined. Subsequent attempts to replicate that success fell flat, though, failing to win over critics and doing little to please audiences, either.
One reason for this may be that they’re built around less likable protagonists. Where Pineapple Express hinges on the growing bond between Dale and Saul, which admittedly has its highs and lows, Your Highness is primarily concerned with pampered prince Thadeous (McBride) and his need to prove himself to his heroic brother Fabious (Franco), who needs help rescuing his fiancée (Deschanel) from an evil sorcerer (Justin Theroux). In theory, that’s not a bad plot to hang a series of comedic set-pieces on, but screenwriters McBride and Ben Best (co-creator of Eastbound & Down with McBride and Jody Hill) are mostly content just to lay in a lot of lazy pot humor and a seemingly never-ending stream of gay-panic jokes about perverted wizards, randy minotaurs, and the like. They also strand Deschanel in such a thankless role, it’s a wonder she bothered returning from All the Real Girls.
The same could be said of Sam Rockwell and The Sitter, in which he plays a psychotic drug kingpin (with an army of musclebound weightlifters at his beck and call) to whom lazy college dropout and substitute babysitter Noah (Jonah Hill) owes $10,000 for reasons too convoluted to get into. It’s also not worth going over the personality quirks of the three problem children Noah is saddled with, even though the movie stops dead each time he has to have a heart-to-heart with one of them. In spite of the participation of such frequent collaborators as composer David Wingo, production designer Richard Wright, and cinematographer Tim Orr, The Sitter feels like a mercenary work that was rushed into production to fill a gap in Jonah Hill’s schedule. No wonder Green scaled back his ambitions and personally handled the scripting duties on the agreeably low-key Prince Avalanche (2013), which pulled double-duty by allowing star Paul Rudd to show off his dramatic chops.
Since Prince Avalanche, Green has stuck with the kinds of character-based films with which he made his name. (Tellingly, his only film to get a wide release in that time has been Our Brand Is Crisis, a star vehicle for Sandra Bullock that failed to gain much traction.) Meanwhile, he has channeled his yen for comedy into his small-screen work as creator of the short-lived animated series Good Vibes and director on such shows as Eastbound & Down, Red Oaks, and Vice Principals. This sideline has kept him in touch with McBride, who co-scripted Green’s forthcoming Halloween sequel. A different kind of feint at the mainstream, this was met with some skepticism when it was announced, but if Green treats the saga of Laurie Strode and Michael Myers with the seriousness with which he’s approached most of his other films, he might surprise a lot of naysayers. Or at the very least give them a good scare.