The Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy turns 10 this week, and the cannabis caper has earned its spot in cinema’s Mount Kushmore. But what will “stoner films” look like in a world with legal weed?
What constitutes a classic? Often, the designation befalls a film with a slight case of silver screen schizophrenia. A classic is timeless, yet also a product of its era. It embodies a sensibility or genre, yet can subvert the rules or traditions of either. It can initially be deemed divisive — before eventually becoming infallible. Classics are alters to bow before and darlings to kill. Every genre has them, and David Gordon Green’s Pineapple Express, which was released 10 years ago today, is, against all odds, one of them.
A classic of the stoner genre, Pineapple Express is in conversation with a number of movies that have come before it. But it has the unusual designation of celebrating a milestone anniversary at a cultural inflection point. By itself, the film already merits inclusion in cinema’s Mount Kushmore, embodying the best of the stoner genre and the comedic sensibility of the mid-aughts. And as cultural mores surrounding marijuana reform begin the shift from the fringe to the corporate sector, Pineapple Express has a unique designation: it may very well be the final, classic “stoner movie” of the prohibition era.
The notion might seem semantical; stoner comedies themselves aren’t quite at risk, but what makes Pineapple Express burn so bright is the way in which it employs and deconstructs an entire canon within film. It builds upon the tropes of stoner cinema, but its ambitions are something larger, turning Cheech and Chong into Riggs and Murtaugh. The prevailing sense of humor remains, but what we might be approaching 10 years later is a third iteration of the canon, with Pineapple Express bridging the gap between two distinct eras of marijuana movies: taking the slacker sensibility of the post-boomer stoner comedies and infusing them with the sincerity of the mid-aughts; together, pushing us into a bold new era of endo entertainment.
In Pineapple Express, the titular pot strain turns the life of Dale (Seth Rogen) completely upside down, after he bares witness to a murder cover-up and leaves the telltale roach behind while fleeing the scene. Soon, thugs, hoping to erase any trail of witnesses, trace the joint back to Saul (James Franco), the dopey dope dealer who sold Dale his stash, and who soon finds himself over his head and on the run with his customer-turned-friend.
It’s a classic trope of the genre, the well-meaning stoners in over their heads. Films like Harold and Kumar and Smiley Face turn the minutiae of an everyday task into a ruckus adventure, while Bill and Ted take high concepts like time travel and make them seem, by stoned logic, entirely rational — Terminator by way of Spicoli. The weed canon is often about escalation — searching for your car can lead to first contact with an alien species — and often, the irreverence is meant to mimic the visceral insanity of being high in a world that isn’t (but sure acts like it). The interplay between narrative incoherence and comedic insanity are, fundamentally, a cornerstone of the stoner film — eschewing logic, often giddly.
Pineapple follows this credo, but it does so with its eye on a bigger cinematic prize. While many stoner films crib traits from a bevy of genres, Pineapple Express is explicitly interested in some fusion of stoner film and Hollywood blockbuster. Its set pieces — shoot-outs, a car chase, a remote farmhouse fit for an ‘80s Bruce Willis flick — do to the scale of the stoner film what The Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski did for its artistic pedigree. The Hollywood blockbuster was born with Jaws in 1975, just four years before Cheech & Chong hit the screen, and Pineapple Express feels like a meeting point of those two roads, which dovetailed in the summer of 2008.
By then, the genre’s character tropes were so firmly in place that the film was able to toy around with the actors’ star power. Rogen was originally set to play pot dealing Saul, before Franco convinced him to swap roles, turning Franco into the long-haired, bandana-wearing toker, and Rogen into the straight man in his own script. That reversal managed to set an entirely new precedent for the two actors in the years to follow, giving Rogen the flexibility to portray everymen in Hollywood dramadies like Funny People and Awards season pictures like Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs. And Franco was able to display a kind of comedic elasticity he has since used in other Rogen collaborations, most recently in The Disaster Artist.
Franco and Rogen’s characters were so notable that they paid tribute in a faux-trailer for a sequel, Pineapple Express 2: Blood Red, which appeared as an easter egg in their 2013 meta-comedy This Is the End. In the film, both actors — along with Pineapple co-stars Craig Robinson and Danny McBride, and other adjacent members of the Apatow gang — play themselves in the days after a global apocalypse wipes out most of the world. Within the context of the end times epic, a fake sequel to Pineapple Express serves as their final communicae to the outside world.
In many ways, the evolution of the stoner movie genre has always mirrored the drug’s standing in the court of public opinion. For decades, weed’s association with the counterculture left a residual bad taste in peoples’ mouths, warped into the same conversations as LSD, and depicting its users as former hippies-turned-burnouts. The teen movie boom of the 1980s took the stoners of the 70s and applied the logic to the next generation, making the pot user the de facto slacker of every high school. From Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Dazed and Confused, these films didn’t have contempt for stoners, but they created a template — and, yes, reinforced certain stereotypes about cannabis users — that the next 20-plus years of filmmaking weren’t too interested in breaking out of.
All of which is to say that Pineapple Express is a logical extension of the genre’s tough love approach. The tropes were well-meaning, if patronizing, but the illegality of marijuana and general War on Drugs zeitgeist always provided an overriding context for judgement. The films of Judd Apatow, which came to be the dominant comedic sensibility of the early-to-mid aughts, built off of the stoner caricature in order to interrogate the interior malaise of the modern man, digging deeper and establishing a kind of sativa sentimentalism in the process. Often, the end results would be a more conservative affair; men realizing the error of their ways is best remedied by accepting the nuclear option: a wife, kids, a life of traditional domestication.
Rogen was the architect for many of their collaborations, and with the exception of Superbad (a coming of age story dreamed up by Rogen and his frequent collaborator Evan Goldberg when the two were teens), the Rogen-Apatow films portrayed stonerism as a kind of arrested development. Pineapple Express both leans into and subverts this tradition, with Dale a stunted man-child who, nevertheless, finds himself behind the steering wheel of an action movie, both metaphorically and literally.
No other illicit substance has managed to permeate American culture to such a degree that its manifested its own subgenre of cinema (one could make the argument that cocaine has spawned countless films about cartels and the international Drug War, but would anyone designate “coke movies” as its own filmic category?). In doing so, stoner movies have always made a point about the arbitrariness of the drug’s demonization, simply by getting made in the first place. Pineapple Express plays with this in an opening scene that depicts the American government as the cultivators of the eponymous flower strain, a conspiratorial angle that is deepened when the film later portrays the police force as an institutional agent of evil (not one of the film’s biggest stretches, frankly).
Yet these are elements designed as a reaction to the policing of pot, and have become foundational to the canon. If the late 1970s and 80s gave us the first wave of stoner cinema, bridging the gap between farce and slapstick, and the 1990s through the 2000s found a deepening of the slacker character, from high school burn out to heroic man-child, what is the third iteration going to look like in an era where stoners won’t have to battle their own self-image?
Movies may not know yet, but the answer might, unsurprisingly, be on television. Donald Glover’s Atlanta vacillates between grittiness and dizzying fantasy, and feels informed by weed not as subject matter or character trait, but rather a definitive sensibility that pushes the show into a fever dream. The omnipresence of institutional racism and policing notwithstanding, the show feels like it could easily exist in a post-weed America. High Maintenance portrays weed not as a source of politics or a punchline, but instead as a source of cosmic interconnectivity, unifying disparate vignettes into one singular tapestry. Even Broad City has gone a long way in flipping the script while still playing by it, turning the stoner canon on its head simply by dialing down the testosterone.
Still, these works of entertainment — most of them on television, though informed by a cinematic sensibility that has, ironically, nothing to do with stoner cinema — are still products of marijuana’s illicit years, however waning those days may be. Who can say what waits on the other end, what the future holds, and what the films might look like? Anxiety has become the spectre of our time, hovering invisibly as one of our generation’s most defining ailments. The widespread decriminalization of weed, as well as bipartisan political support for cannabis reform, may turn pot into something so ubiquitous that characters will interact with it with seemingly little fuss — something as casual as ordering a drink in a bar.
All of this remains unwritten, but just 10 years ago, Seth Rogen’s Dale is first seen cruising through a Los Angeles throughway, his windows down and radio up. He’s listening in to a talk station that he’s just been patched through to. Smoking a joint, he lets the host and listeners know what’s on his mind: “If marijuana is not legal in the next five years, I will have no faith left in humanity, period.”
It’s a moment meant to tell you something about his priorities, the note that quite literally introduces us to the world of the film. One month later, the country would enter the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Two months after that, it would elect its first black president. But 10 years later, it’s Rogen who might have been preaching change we could believe in.