Auteur Theories

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08/12/2008 9:00 AM |

Jesse Hassenger on David Gordon Green’s Pineapple Express, and Why We Should Maybe Be Calling It That.

For me, the main source of excitement around the new Judd Apatow-produced, Seth Rogen-starring comedy Pineapple Express was not whether it would rewrite the stoner-comedy genre (if it does, aficionados still may not remember that it happened), or whether James Franco could reinvent himself as a comic actor (anyone who saw him on Freaks and Geeks pretty much already knew this would happen). No, I was most fascinated by the participation of director David Gordon Green, one of our best young-ish filmmakers, and previously known for a quartet of deliberately paced, regionally specific indie dramas: George Washington (2000), All the Real Girls (2003), Undertow (2004), and the recent Snow Angels, which is still on my short list for best movie of the year. It’s not that Green’s films aren’t sometimes funny. Even Snow Angels, his heaviest, most outwardly tragic movie, has a vivid, sometimes heartbreaking sense of humor. His actors clearly improvise, too, and his films share a love of slightly off-kilter but always believable conversational arrhythm. An Apatow movie on the gentler end of the spectrum might’ve seemed like a logical progression, but Pineapple Express is a stoned shoot-em-up, a departure for the Apatow team before Green was even involved.

But faith in Green will be rewarded: his sensibility is visible in Pineapple Express; you can almost him improving the movie before your eyes.

Though it’s especially difficult to get a bead on what a shooting script for an improv-heavy comedy looks like, the extra features on the Superbad DVD include a table read that at least provides a hint. The footage reveals that a surprising amount of improvised-sounding dialogue was in the original script by Rogen and best friend Evan Goldberg. I think it’s safe to say, then, that a decent portion of what we see in Pineapple Express is on-script — and that said script is not the writers’ best work. It feels rougher and looser, with lots of funny lines that don’t stick with the same mix of bravado and naturalism that powered the teenage boy patter of Superbad. The story is necessarily more scattered: perpetually stoned Dale (Rogen) witnesses an execution; soon he and his even more baked dealer Saul (Franco) are, well, normally you’d say “on the lam,” but they don’t seem focused enough to warrant that description. They’re shambling in and out of the lam.

But the movie’s wandering works, thanks not just to the game performers but also and especially Green’s eye for detail. The action, such as it is, stays more or less within the limits of a single unnamed city, and Green lets his love of post-industrial landscapes shine through. Until a hilariously sloppy free-for-all action climax, most of the big scenes take place in alleys, or ugly apartments, or patches of littered woods. It’s all perfectly small-scale and banal, like the suburbs and parking lots of Superbad.

In fact, as Pineapple Express goes on, it looks more and more like a weirdly fitting companion piece to its near-perfect predecessor: another meditation on male friendship, at a very different (though, if anything, less mature) stage of life. The intersection point is that sketchy twentysomething house party from the earlier movie where everyone looked like refugees from the underbellies of Hold Steady songs, then intended as a chilling harbinger of where Seth and Evan’s lives could go. Pineapple Express finds the Seth character (now actually played by Rogen) well on its way down that path: almost everyone he encounters, save his (high school-aged) girlfriend’s parents, could’ve turned up to do coke or watch fistfights at that party (in fact, a few of the actors do turn up again here). Even the drug dealer’s henchmen look like mangy townies; they’re soundly shown up by a rival gang — “the Asians” — outfitted in sleek black, ninja-style, and the contrast is what just barely keeps this conceit from offensiveness.

New York Magazine’s Vulture blog has already noted that both Rogen/Goldberg scripts so far have been directed by indie vets (Superbad was Greg Mottola’s first film since The Daytrippers). On the surface, this may look like slumming or experimenting and at very least, hooking up with Apatow is a superficially strong career move; Pineapple made more money on its first day than Green’s first four movies combined, several times over. But beyond the financial windfall, Mottola and now Green have both done terrific work on these studio films. It may not be immediately apparent because comedy isn’t always thought of as a director’s genre; so much is credited, and rightly so, to the writing and, especially, performing.

For further illustration, one only needs to watch a couple of spring comedies with strong casts and decent writing: Forgetting Sarah Marshall, also from the Apatow company; and the Fina Fey/Amy Poehler team-up Baby Mama, from SNL and Austin Powers vet Michael McCullers. Both movies are funny enough, and worth watching for comedy fans, but both are staged with distracting clumsiness. Forgetting Sarah Marshall has plenty of funny sequences, but for a while they play like vignettes strung together by improbable coincidence (about half the movie’s scenes seem to start with one character bumping into another); the director, Nicholas Stoller making his feature debut, doesn’t shape them into smooth, flowing whole. Similarly, Baby Mama sometimes looks as if the director is sitting around with the audience, gawking at the performances, rather than taking care of shot placement, blocking, and transitions. Pineapple Express, with its stoned detours, has moments with potential for similar clunks, but Green knows how to dissipate any awkwardness into the movie’s overall haze.

The value of a good comedy director also crossed my mind while watching Adam McKay’s underappreciated Step Brothers. McKay has a decent reputation as Will Ferrell’s favorite co-conspirator, but doesn’t get much credit as a director, maybe because his movies tend to be discussed in terms of his star and/or his producer (Apatow again). It doesn’t help that Step Brothers seems to follow the Apatow template: Ferrell and John C. Reilly play forty-year-old children, forced to cohabitate, and maybe eventually grow up, when their parents marry.

Though the story recalls The 40-Year-Old Virgin, among others, Step Brothers is actually rougher, darker, and, in its small-scale way, weirder than McKay’s Talladega Nights or even Anchorman. Those movies had their hilarious oddball tangents, to be sure (especially Anchorman), but shared a basic fall-and-rise-of-pompous-man template. Step Brothers initially seems to be heading into Virgin territory, as the men-boys must eventually confront their rampant immaturity and selfishness, and venture into the real world. But McKay and Ferrell aren’t satisfied with the conceit that overgrown adolescents (or, in this case, overgrown ten-year-olds) need only a hopeful montage to get real jobs, take responsibility, and grow up; the adult world is, eventually, depicted as soul-crushing and asinine, with fully grown men prattling about meaningless corporate events like the “Catalina wine mixer” thrown by Ferrell’s helicopter-rental company. But the movie isn’t an advertisement for arrested development, either; there isn’t any question that Ferrell and Reilly’s behavior is deeply disturbed.

In other words, this is a learning-free narrative ramble worthy of Seinfeld or The Simpsons, only without the benefit of pre-established characters. Step Brothers isn’t quite as consistently hilarious as its predecessors, but it’s one of the funniest movies of the year, thanks in no small part to McKay’s ability to stage, arrange, and pace the gags. His movies aren’t particularly pretty to look at, but their slapstick is well-orchestrated, the framing well-considered, the little touches (like the snippet of a grandiose musical cue that plays every time Ferrell glimpses Reilly’s prized drum set). That is to say that it feels like a “real” movie, no matter how much it flaunts traditional narrative conventions — just as Pineapple Express manages to be well-made and patently ridiculous. I’m sure we’ll hit some kind of Apatow backlash in another three or four months, or the next time a movie with his name on it is less than reasonably fantastic, whichever comes first. But directors like McKay and Green show how far these new comedies extend beyond branding as they labor over their slacker portraiture.