Pineapple Express

“Pineapple Express” represents significant growth and maturity from the Judd Apatow comedy factory. I realize that sounds incongruous when applied to the guys who brought us immature treats like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” but I’m talking about development from a filmmaking standpoint. The new film is more disciplined and less scattershot than Apatow’s previous films — and slightly less funny, too, but we’ll get to that later.

The story was conceived by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (the “Superbad” masterminds), with help from producer Apatow, as an homage to 1980s action comedies. Rogen stars as Dale Denton, a 25-year-old pothead who works as a process server and dates a high school student. He is loath to admit it, but his best friend is his pot dealer, Saul (James Franco), a stringy-haired burnout who is exactly like every pot dealer you’ve ever met (or, um, seen in movies).

After Dale accidentally witnesses a murder committed by a drug kingpin (Gary Cole) and a dirty cop (Rosie Perez), he and Saul go on the run. The “man who knew too much” scenario is familiar, of course; the twist here is that our innocent bystanders must hide, devise strategies, and execute plans of action while completely wasted. It becomes a running joke that they continue to spark up even though it’s obvious that they’d be more efficient sober. They’re not addicted, though! Dale usually smokes through a bong, which he says filters out the addictive parts!

The film’s first act made me wonder if it would be a stoners-only comedy, with many of the gags aimed specifically at the life of a marijuana enthusiast. Happily, that line of thinking runs its course soon enough and the film settles in to more broad-based antics in which the everyday joes just happen to be potheads.

It’s also a good thing, in my opinion, that the film remains an homage to ’80s action comedies (including the occasional burst of graphic violence) without becoming a broad parody of them. References to films like “Lethal Weapon” and “Repo Man” are sprinkled throughout (and Huey Lewis & the News even sing the title song over the closing credits), but familiarity with those types of films is not required to appreciate “Pineapple Express.” It reminds me of “Hot Fuzz” in that there are certain satiric elements, but the main point is that the characters have seen the films in question and find themselves forced to emulate them.

The film’s director is a newcomer to the Apatow family: beloved indie auteur David Gordon Green (“All the Real Girls,” “Snow Angels”). This is Green’s fifth feature film, but it’s his first comedy, his first movie with major action sequences, and the first film that he didn’t write himself. You’d never know this was such a departure for him, though — he oversees it as if he’d been making marijuana-based action comedies all his life.

Rogen, the cuddly loser from “Knocked Up,” is still delightful here; his persona, rooted in character rather than shtick, hasn’t gotten old yet. The revelation is James Franco, who’s been stuck as the whiny Harry Osborn in the “Spider-Man” films lately and hasn’t had an opportunity to stretch out and make himself comfortable. Here he plays Saul hilariously and with alarming accuracy, a pot dealer whose weed-addled attention span is forgivable because he’s just so darned lovable. Saul is an easy-going, low-maintenance friend, if not a very reliable one.

Note that while most of the Apatow team’s previous comedies have been loosely structured (you could cut a scene here or there without affecting the story), “Pineapple Express” must adhere strictly to a plot. There’s more plot here than in “Knocked Up” and “Superbad” combined — which is perfectly reasonable, of course, since the films that inspired it are story-driven.

What this means, though, is that there aren’t as many laughs as in some of the other Apatow-produced films. The mechanics of the plot aren’t always funny; sometimes they’re just necessary, and there’s not really a way to punch them up without turning into a farce or spoof. The film definitely lags in the middle before being enlivened by a terrific car chase (don’t drive while stoned, kids), and it’s smooth sailing after that. Particularly helpful: Danny R. McBride (“The Foot Fist Way”) as Red, a tough-talking, hard-to-kill drug dealer who becomes Dale and Saul’s third partner and nearly steals the show. There are some seriously funny people involved in this movie, and all the pot-smoking only seems to have made them more creative.

B (1 hr., 51 min.; R, pervasive harsh profanity, a fair amount of somewhat graphic violence, lots of pot-smoking.)