MOVIES: New Apatow comedy goes up in smoke

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Superproducer Judd Apatow has found success within every subgenre of comedy he has tackled. He’s nailed romantic comedy (“Knocked Up,” “The 40 Year Old Virgin”), farce (“Anchorman,” “Talladega Nights”) and the high school coming-of-age story (“Superbad”).

The previews for “Pineapple Express” suggested he was ready to break new ground: the stoner comedy.

That assumption is only half-right. The latest from the Apatow Factory is new ground, but it’s not quite a stoner comedy. Well, it is, insofar as every major character is a drug dealer or customer. At heart, however, “Pineapple Express” is less a stoner flick than an action comedy - and that’s not a good thing.

Mr. Apatow’s resident boy genius, Seth Rogen, stars as Dale Denton, a twentysomething process server who, in between handing out summonses, passes the time getting high and listening to talk radio.

Mr. Rogen’s shtick is the same as it ever was; he plays a lovable, if slightly ribald, man-child dating a beautiful younger girl (Amber Heard) far out of his league.

After picking up some remarkable stuff (the titular strain of pot) from his dealer, Saul (James Franco), Dale heads over to serve papers on Saul’s source, Ted Jones (Gary Cole). He unwittingly stumbles into an execution, seeing Ted and a corrupt female cop (Rosie Perez) murder one of his rivals.

Panicked upon realizing Ted can track his incredibly rare weed (a butt of which he left at the scene), Dale grabs Saul. Saul grabs a satchel of pot and a box of Fruit Roll Ups, and the pair hightail it out of town, leaving before they realize they’ll have to return to protect their loved ones. Needless to say, hijinks ensue.

The hijinks come in two varieties. There is the funny, bumbling stoner kind - focused on the incoherent druggie ramblings that only make sense when you’re stoned and come off as hilarious to bystanders. “Pineapple Express” is replete with sequences revolving around this style of comedy; the banter engaged in by Dale, Saul and Saul’s middleman, Red (Danny McBride) is consistently chuckle-inducing.

The second variety of hijinks, however, is far less enjoyable. These revolve around scenes of striking violence - scenes that feel interminable and get longer as the movie goes along. Shootouts and in-house brawls come to dominate the film, gumming up its flow.

It doesn’t help that the action is incredibly jarring. This isn’t a movie satisfied with video-game violence - when someone gets shot, you see the gore. One particularly brutal gag toward the end involves a portion of Dale’s ear getting shot off in a gunfight. It’s not often that you feel a comedy audience cringe as if they’re in Eli Roth’s latest torture-porn pic.

It’s a shame so much attention was paid to the gun battles and so little to character development. Subplots between minor characters are introduced and tossed away; Dale’s relationship with his girlfriend serves little purpose; and even Dale’s friendship with Saul feels a little trite.

“Pineapple Express” is good for a few laughs but little more; it’s low-grade Apatow - I think they used to call it dirt weed.

★★½

TITLE: “Pineapple Express”

RATING: Rated R (pervasive language, drug use, sexual references and violence)

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