The recipe for "Pineapple Express" is simple, if thoroughly bizarre. Take one writer-producer (Judd Apatow) and one writer-star (Seth Rogen) known for bright, raunchy hit comedies like "Knocked Up" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." Add one sensitive regional filmmaker (David Gordon Green of "George Washington" and "All the Real Girls") determined to have his Hollywood moment. Fold in that filmmaker's unexpected love of 1980s action trash; really indefensible stuff like "Tango & Cash." Roll it all up in a big, righteous Cheech and Chong doob and smoke it.
It'd be nice to report that the results represent a new kind of fusion cinema, or at the very least two hours of you-got-peanut-butter-on-my-chocolate inspiration. Disappointingly, "Pineapple Express" is less than the sum of its ingredients, even if it's still a good stupid time at the movies. The intentional sloppiness makes for a nice change of pace in a summer of gleaming superhero machinery, but, in the end, sloppy is sloppy.
The film's high point (nudge, nudge) is probably the all-stops-out performance by James Franco, heretofore best known as the cleanly pressed if psychotic Harry Osborn of the "Spider-Man" movies. Franco plays Saul Silver, a pot dealer who exists in a constant state of addled hippie enthusiasm. (The title refers to his latest brand of awesome herb.) His customer and sort-of best friend is Dale Denton (Rogen), a teddy-bear burn-out who has an actual job (process server) and girlfriend (a high school beauty played by Amber Heard, whom the movie introduces, then mostly ignores).
The first 20 minutes coast along on the fumes of Rogen's established likability and the surprise of seeing Franco playing Sean Penn's role from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." The dialogue consists of amusingly stoned riffage fed by a deep love of junk nostalgia: Eddy Grant's "Electric Avenue" on the radio, "The Jeffersons" on Saul's TV. This movie has the pop-culture munchies.
Then the plot kicks in: Dale witnesses a gangland rub-out by local drug kingpin Ted Jones (Gary Cole, looking appropriately Mr. Big circa 1983) and his lady-cop lover and accomplice (Rosie Perez). Dale and Saul have to go on the lam and figure out how to survive, which basically means they drive to the woods and fall asleep.
The movie won't let them be, though. Jones sends in a pair of over-caffeinated thugs played by Kevin Corrigan and Craig Robinson - Abbott and Costello doing a remake of "Pulp Fiction." There's also Saul's supplier Red (dorky mullethead Danny R. McBride of the recent "The Foot Fist Way"), who's sympathetic to the heroes even as he's selling them out to the bad guys. In one very funny sequence, Saul and Dale have an epic fight with Red that trashes his crummy little house, and the film suddenly seems as if it's breaking out of its own frame.
That scene effectively balances comedy and hellacious violence; other scenes, not so much. There are high-speed car chases and bloody shoot-outs, severed ears and shotgunned feet, all filtered through Green's indie-dozy sensibility, which in turn is filtered through Apatow and Rogen's smart frat-boy anarchy. That's too much filtering: The results are tasteless in more than one sense.
It is fun to see Rogen play at being the action hero, though, and his climactic punch-up with Cole is refreshingly ugly, the way fights are in the real world but rarely in the movies. Franco is consistently funny as a guy who doesn't find reality interesting enough to check in very often. Green even pulls off a few excellent sight gags, the most cheering of which involves Saul trying to kick out the Slurpee-covered windshield of a stolen police car at 60 miles per hour.
What doesn't work is the script's insistence that Dale and Saul strengthen their emotional bond over the course of the movie. Apatow's films have a thing for straight-guy romance - for the way buddies can fall out and make up - and "Pineapple Express" at times plays like "Superbad" with live ammunition.
That's finally one element too many. Guys, you're asking us to swallow a pot farce, a buddy thriller, an action parody, and a touching tale of two men on the run? You must be high.