Pineapple Express is the world's first weed-action comedy. It's what might have ensued, say, if Cheech and Chong suddenly found themselves inside a Quentin Tarantino picture. This is an endearingly slovenly, profane movie with bursts of startling violence, but it's all played for nyuk-nyuk laughs, and it has been directed with more care than it might initially appear by David Gordon Green (Snow Angels, George Washington), here making his first genuine bid for mainstream success.
Working once again with his usual cinematographer, Tim Orr, Green brands Pineapple Express with his personal stamp via a somewhat languid pace and occasional detours into pointless but lyrical bits of business, such as a sequence in which a group of schoolkids smoke some dope and dance little celebratory jigs.
But Pineapple Express feels most like another raucous entry in the canon of the Superbad pack of producer Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, The 40 Year-Old Virgin) and actor-screenwriter Seth Rogen. Rogen plays Dale, a slacker-ish process server with an 18-year-old girlfriend (Amber Heard) and a pot habit fueled by his ingratiating dealer Saul (James Franco).
The film's title refers to a new kind of weed Saul has just received, marijuana so rare ''it's almost a shame to smoke it,'' he says. ''It's like killing a unicorn.'' But they go ahead and light up anyway, resulting in a chain of events that finds the shaggy pair on the run from a murderous drug lord (Gary Cole) and a trigger-happy cop (Rosie Perez) on his payroll.
There are only about 30 minutes of actual plot in Pineapple Express. The bulk of the movie simply pits the actors in pot-fueled riffs (a lot of the dialogue was improvised on the set) and follows wherever they happen to take them. The appeal of funny stoners prancing around onscreen has its limits: There's a reason, for example, why Jeff Spicoli was not the central character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. But Pineapple Express never outstays its welcome because Rogen and Franco, the latter obviously relishing the rare opportunity to play comedy, have a natural rapport that keeps you engaged even when they're sitting around watching 227 on TV.
Their relationship, which is slyly structured as a subversive romance (''I'm totally glad I dipped in your ink,'' Saul tells Dale about their budding friendship), follows the Apatow tradition of countering the coarseness of the material with an underlying tenderness. Dale and Saul grow on you as people, not just potheads: The weed just makes them funnier.
As usual in an Apatow comedy, too, all the supporting players get their turn to shine, whether it's Danny McBride's meaty supporting role as a friend of Saul who is dragged into their crisis (it is McBride who gets to utter the line ''You just got killed by a Daewoo Lanos, [expletive]!'') or Ed Begley Jr. as the shotgun-toting father of Dale's underage girlfriend. He too gets a few memorable bits of dialogue, although it can't be repeated here. Yes, Pineapple Express is exceedingly crude, but it's never mean or lewd, and for all the drugs and gore in it, the movie is also strangely, unrelentingly sweet, even when its characters are bleeding to death after having been shot in the stomach.