Pot comedy 'Pineapple Express' really smokes

Al Alexander

Hey! Wanna get high? Put more bang in your bong?

Try “Pineapple Express,” high-potency dope about a couple of buds trying not to get smoked.

Even Bill Clinton will want to inhale this wacky weed, which fills the lungs with intoxicating blasts of THC (trenchant hemp comedy). It’s the guys dealing it, though, that make it a hit to remember.

Seth Rogen and James Franco are hardly household names, but I’m betting they will be after audiences get a whiff of their grass-roots antics in a screenplay (co-written by Rogen) that has them playing pot-heads on the run from a ruthless drug lord (Gary Cole) and his crooked-cop girlfriend (Rosie Perez).

It’s dumb, and has plenty of crotch and stoner jokes to prove it. But it’s also oddly sweet and endearing, just as you’d expect from a laughfest produced by Judd Apatow (“Knocked Up,” “Superbad”). And facilitating that end are Rogen and Franco, the former “Freaks and Geeks” stars whose substance is anything but controlled.

Like the great screen teams of old – Martin and Lewis, Lemmon and Matheau, Abbott and Costello – they understand how opposites attract audiences by creating friction that is both humorous and believable.

From the first moment you see each – Rogen as the weaselly, clean-cut process server Dale Denton and Franco as the spaced-out, scraggly haired neighborhood marijuana supplier Saul Silver – you’re utterly smitten. And it’s an affection that gets higher and higher as they get deeper and deeper into a fix they’re too stoned to get out of – all due to their love for that fickle Mary Jane.

At times she can be harsh, but she also can be smooth and mellow, as is the case with pineapple express, the sweetest, most potent pot known to mankind. It’s so rare and spectacular, it’s almost too good to smoke, “like killing a unicorn,” says Saul in his infinite, but hazy wisdom.

It becomes hazardous to their health, though, once Dale leaves a a pineapple roach behind after witnessing the murder of a Chinese drug kingpin by Cole’s Ted, who easily traces the smoldering evidence back to Dale and Saul.

What ensues is equal parts Cheech and Chong and Harold and Kumar with a bit of “Lethal Weapon” thrown in to attract a larger demographic. And that’s the film’s biggest liability. It tries to be too many things, none of them original.

It’s grating at times, too. But it’s also irresistible thanks in no small part to Rogen, playing (excuse the expression) straight man to an unconventional tee, and Franco, perfect as the second coming of Jeff Spicoli.

If Oscar voters weren’t such stick in the muds, Franco would be a contender come February, but that doesn’t diminish the appreciation for a performance that is remarkable in its simplicity and nuance.

Sure, his affable, needy pusher is the male equivalent of the hooker with the heart of gold, but Franco makes Saul so human, so genuine that’s hard not to buy what he’s selling. You want to buy more, too. And would if the script by Rogen and his “Superbad writing partner, Evan Goldberg, weren’t laced with so many idiotic bits by the hopelessly unfunny Danny McBride as Red, the de facto third wheel in Saul and Dale’s budding friendship.

McBride, also a disaster in “The Foot Fist Way” earlier this summer, again unleashes his overbearing shtick that can best be described as Pauly Shore on steroids. I hated every second he was onscreen, although I did take a cathartic pleasure each time Ted’s henchman (well played by Perez, Kevin Corrigan and Craig Robinson from “The Office”) popped a bullet into his lumpy torso as part of a running gag.

The only reason McBride is here, I suspect, is because he went to college with “Pineapple’s” director, David Gordon Green (as in the color of reefer), an indie darling better known for his intense dramas (“Snow Angels,” “All the Real Girls”) than comedy. But other than McBride and some occasional problems with pacing, Green does a credible job.

His regular cinematographer, Tim Orr, another college chum, also brings an indie sensibility to a big studio production by lending mood and style – even in the handful of intense, but silly, action scenes – that make “Pineapple Express” look more expensive than its fairly meager $27 million budget.

If it were up to me, the entire sum would go into the pockets of Rogen and Franco, the dobbie-digging duo that keeps “Pineapple’s” blitz of jokes and tokes from going completely up in smoke.

PINEAPPLE EXPRESS

(R for pervasive language, drug use, sexual references and violence.) Cast includes Seth Rogen, James Franco, Gary Cole, Rosie Perez and Danny McBride. Directed by David Gordon Green. 3 stars.

The Patriot Ledger