As the happily zonked, pot-dealing Saul in Pineapple Express - written by Superbad screenwriters Seth Rogen (who also stars) and Evan Goldberg - James Franco is wonderfully unpredictable. The actor has flashed the occasional grin in previous film roles, but his uncanny resemblance to James Dean finds him so often used for brooding melancholy, most notably in the Spider-Man films, that his emergence as an inventive and quick-witted comedian in this stoner-buddy action farce is cause for celebration. Or rather, it would be, if Franco had a better movie in which to display his gifts.
Pineapple Express certainly starts promisingly enough, with Rogen's buyer and Franco's dealer toking up and riffing together with a relaxed, gently funny offhandedness that brings back welcome memories of the actors' byplay on TV's Freaks & Geeks. (Here, though, Franco - prone to gonzo non sequiturs and teary-eyed sentimentality - is playing the Jason Segel role.) And it even stays promising after the plot, as it must, finally kicks in, with Rogen witnessing a killing, and our dazed and confused heroes finding themselves evading hit men and cops. But the problem here isn't that this initially genial comedy quickly turns into a frenetic and rather brutal action movie; it's that it turns into an ineffectively frenetic and brutal action movie.
There are numerous directors adept at yielding huge laughs from shocking violence: Tarantino, of course, and Romero and Raimi, and Edgar Wright in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Based on the evidence here, though, Pineapple Express's David Gordon Green isn't yet among them; the violence is shocking, but it isn't at all entertaining. Staged with indie-film naturalism, even the slapstick - as when Rogen, Franco, and fellow supplier Danny McBride tear a living room apart while kicking the crap out of each other - is punishing, yet the situations that lead to all this mayhem are strictly cartoonish. When Ed Begley Jr. is blasting holes in his family's kitchen, or Craig Robinson is getting his face disfigured by scalding coffee, the movie becomes as tiresomely "hip" as those vile action comedies Smokin' Aces and Lucky Number Slevin.
As time-wasters go, Pineapple Express is acceptable enough, I guess. Franco and McBride provide a lot of fun, Rogen (when not shouting) has moments, and there are some good, raunchy gags throughout. It's never less than watchable, but unfortunately, the film proves to be a lot less dope than its titular dope; its highs are all random, and they don't last long.
THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS 2
In one of the stranger double-features I've yet experienced, I preceded my Pineapple Express viewing with The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, despite having missed the tween hit that was 2005's Pants 1. To be honest, I wasn't planning on attending this new one at all, but I was still feeling some lingering guilt over blowing off the well-reviewed Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, and I also figured, what the hell, it's summer - who am I to turn down a sequel?
So to Pants 2 I went, and I wound up glad that I did. It's not going to set the film world on fire or anything, probably not even among fans of Ann Brashares' book series. (From what I understand, the movie is an amalgamation of plot elements from the author's second, third, and fourth installments.) But as directed by Sanaa Hamri, this tale of collegiate friendship and loyalty is completely pleasant, with an acting quartet that manages to be charming even when stuck with drippy material, and it leaves you feeling relaxed and upbeat - the perfect state, it turned out, for Pineapple Express ... until that movie decided to kick the relaxed and upbeat right outta me.
For fellow Pants newbies, there's this magical pair of blue jeans, see, and they routinely confer good fortune on the four pals who share them: Lena (Alexis Bledel), a fledgling painter; Bridget (Blake Lively), a fledgling archaeologist; Carmen (America Ferrera), a fledgling theatre artisan; and Tibby (Amber Tamblyn), a fledgling screenwriter. (Not to be catty, but the pants do have to be a little magical to successfully fit each of these young women of varying sizes.) Such issues as absent beaus, deceased parents, backstabbing friends, and possible pregnancy are addressed here, and what results is like Sex & the City minus the (on-screen) sex and the salty language; it's a "You go, girl!" fantasy in which designer phones substitute for designer handbags.
It's also unexpectedly easy to sit through. Though the plotlines and occasional attempts at slapstick are tired, at least the dialogue isn't - Elizabeth Chandler's script is filled with fresh, funny banter - and the leads are all terrific, especially the luminous Tamblyn, who, as with Franco and Dean, is eerily reminiscent of Anne Hathaway. (And Lively, at certain angles here, looks so much like Gwyneth Paltrow that's it's no surprise when Blythe Danner shows up as Bridget's grandmother.) The movie is big-hearted and good-natured and, amazingly, never dull, and I'm now thisclose to adding the original Pants to my Netflix queue. Please don't tell anyone.