Thanks to a TV biopic from 2001, someone was able to convince James Franco that he was the next James Dean. His career has gone accordingly, with sensitive-but-brooding pretty-boy roles in City By The Sea, Tristan & Isolde, Annapolis, Flyboys, and the Spider-Man movies. But Freaks And Geeks fans know that Franco is the inverse: A fake James Dean, someone who uses his looks to score chicks, but is really an imposter and a loser, and a damned funny one at that. There are many things to like about Pineapple Express, an old-school action-comedy retooled as a stoner goof, but Franco's return to humor is a cause for celebration, or at least relief that he's finally come back to us. As a perpetually baked pot dealer, Franco colors his many laugh lines with a sweet, childlike naïveté that's completely disarming. It also helps set the tone for a film that's as loose and playful as major studio movies get.
Written by Seth Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg—the duo also scripted last summer's Superbad—Pineapple Express refers to an exclusive strain of weed that Franco offers to Rogen, his favorite customer and secret best friend. Rogen's job as a process server allows him to toke up in his car between jobs, but one night, while waiting to hand out a subpoena, he witnesses a murder, and murderer Gary Cole witnesses him right back. As it happens, Cole is also Franco's chief supplier, and he traces the marijuana strain back to the source, sending Franco and Rogen on the run with a crooked cop (Rosie Perez) and a couple of bumbling henchmen (Kevin Corrigan and The Office's Craig Robinson) hot on their trail.
The wildcard in Pineapple Express is David Gordon Green, a director known for offbeat, beautiful, semi-improvisational indie films like George Washington and All The Real Girls. He's an unconventional directorial choice for a mainstream action-comedy, but his impeccable eye defies the indifferent visual style of most Judd Apatow productions, and he has a glancing touch that keeps the violence from mucking up the fun. (His staging of the big action finale is the most hilariously awkward free-for-all since the pirate shootout in The Life Aquatic.) A subplot involving Rogen's relationship with a high-school student (Amber Heard) could have been excised, though at the expense of the one of the film's funniest scenes. But good stoner comedies like Pineapple Express have a rambling, shaggy-dog nature that can make quirky little detours and non sequiturs more essential than story itself.