Pineapple Express and Tropic Thunder

Pineapple Express
Pineapple Express

Here are two comedies I saw a while ago and just haven’t bothered to review until now. Both were fairly well-received by most critics, although Pineapple was considerably more divisive. It is sustained by the performance of James Franco, whose Saul Silver is basically the guy you knew in high school who everybody in your class sort of tolerated, but only so they could get drugs off him. It’s not that he’s unlikeable; he’s just unmotivated and distant. I mean, he’s a pothead. What do you expect?

Dale Denton (Seth Rogen) is one of his customers, a guy who doesn’t really like Saul but puts up with him for the weed. Seth is dating a senior in high school (Amber Heard), which is one of many subplots that disappears as the film switches gears midway through its run time.

That was my main fault with the film. It builds itself up as a fairly traditional slacker comedy — potheads on the run from corrupt cops, all the typical elements of such films intact — but then suddenly turns into a martial arts action flick, with overly realistic fight scenes that betray the light comedic elements and silly gratuity of what’s happening on screen (blaring gun fights, high speed Blues Brothers style car chases, brutal mutilations that don’t seem to bother the characters receiving them).

People who point out this major flaw in the film are usually derided by the movie’s supporters as having misunderstood the movie. Lazy excuse. The director, David Gordon Green, is a talented guy and was obviously taking the piss with this flick. But that’s why I don’t like its second half. It’s not that I don’t get why the film switches gears midcourse — it’s that I don’t like the result, and it feels snobbish and pretentious. The first half of the movie is traditional but enjoyable — when it suddenly turns into a ridiculous self-satire of genre pictures (both slacker flicks and action thrillers), it makes the first half of the movie look like a big joke. You almost feel betrayed. The romantic subplot between Rogen and Heard is eradicated. The general development of the characters is halted. You realize it was all set up for the punchline; problem is, the punchline isn’t nearly as funny. Give me two hours of James Franco’s Saul rather than the considerably less funny (and, frankly, more annoying) Seth Rogen taking center stage and becoming John Rambo.

I did like the very final scene before the closing credits, though. The action and kung fu stuff was boring, but the final scene of dialogue is just witty and self-conscious enough that you wish they’d opted for that rather than the John Woo shit.

Robert Downey, Jr in "Tropic Thunder"
Tropic Thunder

Comparatively, Tropic Thunder is a more conventional satire. Like Pineapple, it mocks the genre it is a part of, but doesn’t carry the same air of self-importance and superiority. It mocks itself openly, as well as its players, which takes more guts than just mocking everybody else.

The film has plenty of flaws — the ending tries to have its cake and eat it too, becoming victim to its own satire — but also has many strengths. Some of it feels too polished (probably a result of the enormous budget), but Robert Downey, Jr. steals the show as Kirk Lazarus, an Australian actor who has a dermatalogical operation to make his skin black so that he can play an African-American platoon sergeant in a picture about the Vietnam War. A Method Actor on par with the likes of De Niro or Day-Lewis (and, obviously, Russell Crowe), Lazarus “only breaks character for the DVD commentary,” which means he spends the whole film grunting and saying “What it is” and employing other racial stereotypes, much to the chagrin of Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), an African-American actor who is also working on the same film.

Ben Stiller helped write the film, as well as directing and starring. He’s funny but doesn’t stand a chance against Downey’s screen presence. Jack Black is given very little to do as an Eddie Murphy-style comedian who dresses up as members of an obese family for a franchise called “The Fatties,” a nod to The Klumps. You get the impression that many of Black’s scenes were cut from the final product and feel a little dismayed that he wasn’t given more to do, because he actually is rather funny in the film. It’s odd to see a comedic actor of his stature given such a minor role in the movie, considering how heavily he was used in the marketing.

Steve Coogan is also misused, although his character is expanded (and hilarious) in the add-on faux documentary, Rain of Madness, which is available for free on iTunes (definitely worth a download — it also features more scenes of Downey Jr. in character).

Tom Cruise’s extended cameo was ruined before the film’s release and everybody knows about it now, so it’s not exactly a big surprise. He wasn’t as hysterically funny as some people claim, but it was admittedly rather enjoyable to see him dancing to Ludacris. Yet it also came off as kind of transparent, like he’s desperately trying to show people that he’s still able to make fun of himself. But, frankly, the essence of the character’s humour comes from a built-in expectation that we’ll find it shockingly funny to see Tom Cruise dancing like a black man, shouting obscenities at people, and generally acting crazy. It would perhaps be more surprising if it weren’t so easy to imagine him behaving this way in real life — as amusing as his role is, I couldn’t help but think to myself, Is it really that surprising? Nothing this guy does is going to shock anyone anymore. When he tells Bill Hader at the end of the movie that a “nutless monkey” could do a better job than he has, it’s way too easy to picture him saying this to Matt Lauer without any sense of humour. And then it doesn’t seem nearly as amusing.

Nevertheless, it’s a funny film that — despite its flaws — is quite enjoyable and certainly more consistent than Pineapple Express. Both, however, are at least worth a rental.

Pineapple Express — Rating: ★★★☆☆
Tropic Thunder — Rating: ★★★★☆

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