Sunday, August 10, 2008

Pineapple Express

This year has already given us one great Apatow Production in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (still the funniest film of the year so far), but the second Seth Rogen-Evan Goldberg written film, Pineapple Express, gives it a decent run for its money. It’s not as well crafted as FSM, but, like that film, doesn’t go more than a few minutes without raising a laugh.

The story follows Dale Denton, a processing server who loves weed, and his amiable drug dealer Saul, who flee a drug supplier (Ted Jones, played by Gary Cole), his hitmen, and corrupt cops after Dale witnesses Ted murdering a member of a rival drug supplier. What follows is a hilarious if slightly uneven mash of action and comedy, and it’s sure to entertain.

Seth isn’t really exploring new ground here. All his characters are slight tweaks on a core model: in 40 Year Old Virgin, he was a gruff but lovable schlub whose was eloquent enough to get laid. In Superbad he was a simple cop who used his position to try to look cool. In Knocked Up, he was just a schlub full stop, initially a prick but eventually lovable. Here, he’s a pathetic schlub thrust into an impossible scenario. Seth’s kind of a chubby Tom Hanks playing Tom Hanks. He’s just different enough in each role to not make me worry for his acting future the way I do for Michael Cera, but he’s still getting a little too one-note for comfort.

James Franco, however, puts in the performance of his career. In the Spider-Man films, I found him great as the pained kid who just wanted his father’s love, but I found him insufferable, whiny, and completely un-intimidating when he became the New Goblin. Here, he positively inhabits the role of Saul, capturing all the blankness of a habitual pot smoker without going out of his way to highlight his short term memory loss or his empty-headedness as well as making him lovable. It’s a strange year when, in the first 7 months, the two finest acting performances are a clown villain in a comic book film and a stoner in an action-comedy.

After Dale witnesses the murder (and they don’t mess around, you only have to wait about 8-10 minutes before the plot gets underway), the two ineptly dodge Ted’s vengeance: they run to the woods but forget that Ted’s bought cops can track their cell phones. Even when it dawns upon Saul, they don’t take proper steps. They go see Red, Saul’s middleman supplier who buys from Ted and sells to Saul, even though common sense would dictate that Red would be the first person Ted went to. From there it spirals into an explosive, if predictable action-comedy that errs on the side of action.

The focus of the jokes isn’t so much one-liners (though there are plenty of those), but in capturing the absurdity of Dale and Saul’s situation. Conversations are jumbled; everyone frantically talks over one another, making lines hard to filter out. I, however, like this method, because too many comedies let people in an argument speak one at a time so jokes can be heard. Here, it feels like you’re really watching two paranoid stoners who (quite rightly) think they are going to die at any second. The comedy only gets better when Red is introduced. He is at first an asshole and seemingly an antagonist, but, in the film’s third act, manages to steal the show even from James Franco. He’s crazy, simple, and screamingly funny. By the end of the film, he is somehow alive and somehow the best part of the film.

The action scenes are too jump-cutty, but they are where the film stands out. There is a massive fistfight, car chase, and a massive ending gunfight to keep you entertained. The scenes convey a great deal of the film’s humor, yet they are fairly decent action scenes in their own right. It’s not nearly as good a blend of humor and action as Hot Fuzz, but it’s a damn sight funnier than just about anything else out this year.

It’s not all great, though. Seth’s girlfriend serves no purpose other than to make him look pathetic, and her story ends abruptly and unsatisfyingly. My biggest complaint is actually Gary Cole. I love Gary, but he’s at best mediocre as a crazed drug supplier and, at worst, awful. His right hand man is a corrupt cop, played by Rosie Perez, who one can actually understand these days. Both mistake Dale and Saul for professionals sent by their rivals The Asians. Mistaking idiots for pros is uncomfortable familiar to Dumb & Dumber and a host of other films, and this doesn’t really feel unique enough to forgive that. Also, there is a predictable romance between Cole and Perez that is forced and doesn’t even manage to be funny in a “hey look how forced this is” way.

Anyone who goes into this film hoping for a great pot comedy will be crushingly disappointed; pot is merely the MacGuffin here. However, I was relieved; there are few things less funny than pot humor, and I was afraid the film would be a misfire. In fact, not only is the film not pot humor, it shows the flaws of stoners. Don’t get me wrong, the film is purely pro-pot, but Rogen and Goldberg write two stoners who are lovable but pathetic. Dale is in a job that requires little effort just so he can smoke all the time, and he is dating a high school girl. She keeps begging him to meet her parents, but he is scared, which is probably smart since she borders on jailbait. Saul is even sadder: he sits in his apartment watching old 227 reruns surrounded by electronic gadgets so he never has to leave. Pot comedies beat you over the head with how guys who are normally losers are thrust into a magical world of adventure and hot chicks when they smoke pot. Pineapple Express shows two guys who could possibly survive their ordeal if they’d just stop smoking for 2 hours.

As I said, there’s too much action and not enough comedy, but James Franco and Danny McBride make this movie and keep me rolling for the entire film. Gary Cole was weak, but I think the writing has as much to do with that as his portrayal. It’s not the best film I’ve seen, but I must say I laughed more than I do with all but the best of comedies.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Wizard People, Dear Readers

A sadly one-off MST3K-like spoof of Harry Potter, Wizard People, Dear Reader is the brainchild of comic book artist Brad Neely, who initially thought of making his own demented book on tape version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Wisely realizing that an audiobook spoof wouldn't be all that entertaining, he decided to instead mute the film of the book and narrate over it. Not exactly a fresh idea, but Neely's gruff, occasionally floundering improvisation is one of the funniest running commentaries ever recorded.

While it obviously owes to MST3K (and its vastly inferior offshoot Rifftrax), Neely doesn't simply make fun of a bad film, which this is; instead, he comes up with his own dialogue and expositional descriptions in the vein of Woody Allen's What's Up, Tiger Lily? or Kung Pow: Enter the Fist. He crafts a story that depicts our three heroes as hard-drinking child alcoholics. Harry Potter (usually referred to as H.P. by our gravelly narrator or "Harry fucking Potter" when the character speaks in the third person) is a self-aggrandizing, power-hungry bloke who makes elaborate speeches, usually about himself. Ron becomes Ronnie the Bear, a deceptively simple child who houses a brain stuffed with chess knowledge that could defeat gods.

Hermione is the Wretched Harmony; here Neely makes some of his more childish jokes by usually insulting her looks. I must say I wasn't a fan of him picking on a then-child, but I suppose it's better than the creepy salivating over the older Emma Watson. She is depicted as an ugly girl riddled with self-pity; the cruel mocking gives way to one of the track's funniest moments when Ronnie says that he hopes Harmony "gets a new pillow to cry into" for Christmas.

The commentary takes bit to get going; the first act of the film is devoted entirely to Neely coming up with fresh ways to call the Dursleys fat. However, once classes begin at Hogwarts, Neely comes alive, occasionally stumbling or laughing at the line that popped into his head before saying it but always managing to come up with narration that sounds like narrative bubbles on a pulp fiction comic. He hilariously calls Flitwick "Professor Ugnaught" after the creatures in Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back. He turns Quidditch into a display of homoeroticism and bad teeth. Neville's unfortunate broom ride becomes merely an annoying diversion from Harry's twisted thoughts.

The more the film drags on, the better Neely gets. I can't tell if how much of this he planned in his head (it's obvious he watched the film a few times to get a feel for it), but I'd venture to say not much other than names and places, because he gets more confident as the film progresses and his lines get wilder and wilder. By the time Harry and his gang enter the Forbidden Forest, nearly every line is golden.

As good as the improv is, I do wish Neely would have paused every now and then and rerecorded a bit in which he either broke character or fumbled a line. However, that would have likely broken his stream of consciousness, so it's hard to complain. Really, the only bad parts of this are Neely's loose footing in the first 30 minutes and the simple fact that he didn't do this for all the films (fingers crossed that that might change one day). He took a crap film and made it thoroughly entertaining. The best part? It's all on YouTube right now.

Grade: 8.5/10