Hollywood's bong show: a genre gone to seed

Writer: OK, I got it. Two guys, slacker types, go in search of some falafel. Or a Chewbacca costume. Or maybe they have to pick up the kid brother from yodeling practice.

Producer: And?

Writer: And that's it. That's the plot.

Producer: Seems thin.

Writer: Right, right, I see your point. OK, what if we make the two guys high?

Producer: Now you're onto something.

Cheech and Chong, Harold and Kumar, Thurgood and Scarface. For 30 years, we've been stupidly giggling over the impaired antics of schlubby guys and the ganja they love.

Now we have "Pineapple Express," a stoner flick for a generation paradoxically symbolized by both BlackBerrys and Judd Apatow.

Which, in some ways, makes it not a stoner flick at all, at least not according to King Schlub Seth Rogen, who co-wrote the script with Evan Goldberg.

Rogen stars as Dale Denton, a man-child process server who witnesses a murder while smoking some Pineapple Express, a.k.a. the best pot ever. As luck and plot necessity would have it, the killer is a drug lord who can trace a left-behind roach straight to its smoker. So Dale and Saul (James Franco), his dealer, must make a trippy escape from the bad guys and also get to Dale's girlfriend's house for a meet-the-parents dinner.

"When you're a pot dealer, you're taking a hit for society," says Rogen, who talks in real life as his characters do on-screen. "You're a necessary evil, but no one wants to hang out with you." The relationship between Saul, who sells drugs but has a kind heart, and Dale, who has the trappings of adulthood but is kind of a jerk, is what Rogen hopes audiences will focus on.

Except ... the film kind of needs the pot to work.

Sans the weed, "Pineapple Express" would have been a straight-to-DVD buddy comedy, Dumb and Dumbest meets American Pie 57.

With it, portions of the movie are downright inspired, as when Dale and Saul first realize they are targets but get distracted by a case of the munchies. Or when, captured by a hit man, they are too baked to realize their captors can hear every word of their escape plan.

The reviews roll with it, but a viewer can't help saying (ital) Dude, again? (end ital) Because three minutes into the plot and we're already having paranoid flashbacks to stoner flicks of yore:

OK, so here's when toking up gets them into a ridonkulous situation. And here's where they're so stoned that the simplest of tasks becomes an exercise in high-larity. And wait, yeah, now the pot is going to be some character-revealing catalyst to help the protagonist do something he wouldn't have been able to do when he's straight.

In 1998's "Half-Baked," one fully baked character accidentally sends a diabetic horse to a sugary death, forcing his stoner buds, led by Dave Chappelle, to sell even more dope to make his bail. Chappelle gets the girl in the end, one appropriately named Mary Jane.

"Harold Kumar Go to White Castle" (2004) featured high-achieving sons of immigrants, whose pot-smoking leads to rabid raccoons, a randy Neil Patrick Harris and eventual liberation from parental pressure and cultural stereotypes.

Last year's "Smiley Face," which bravely tried a female protagonist, nevertheless frog-marched to form: Anna Faris eats all her roommate's space cakes, then has to figure out how to bake him a new batch while rediscovering her love of Marxist economic theory.

The list could go on (Dude, Where's My Friday Escape From Guantanamo Bay?), but you probably get the drift.

Most optimistically, they're all stories about finding wonder and absurdity in everyday life. Most pessimistically, they're all cultural commentaries on how 20-something men need drugs to help them bond with one another, get in touch with their emotions and find true happiness.

Most realistically, they're films that can be made for a relatively low budget "and appeal to my 13-year-old son," a key demographic, says film historian David Thomson.

Note: We're not talking about those genre-transcending comedies with main characters who happen to be burnouts ("The Big Lebowski," "Dazed and Confused"). Nor are we talking about movies that are fun to watch while high, though in the course of researching this article various friends recommended "Star Wars," "Wonder Boys," "The Little Mermaid" and "Annie."

We are talking about the quintessential weed flicks, the ones that get categorized as a dumb subgenre of buddy films, the ones that seem like they would be awesome to study and analyze until, 16 mind-numbing hours later, you've got nothing but a craving for Cool Ranch Doritos.

Cheech and Chong's "Up in Smoke" is virtually unwatchable if you're not high or you live in 2008.

It literally makes no sense: The two characters end up crossing the Mexican border in a van made entirely of marijuana and then performing onstage at a rock concert, both with no explanation. In some ways, these characteristics are precisely what make it a great weed film: the disjointedness, the nonsense, the lengthy absorption with nothing at all.

It just seems so dated for today, when a pot smoker is as likely to be a middle school teacher as a hippie burnout. (See: housewife smokers in "Weeds," professor smokers in "The Wackness.")

Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong recently announced a reunion tour, and instead of getting excited, we just feel kind of embarrassed for them. It doesn't seem coincidence that Chong's biggest role since the CC movies was a stint in the retro "That '70s Show." Can these guys, 62 and 69, make it as modern stoners?

Does a weed comedy even have a place in today's Ritalin world? "Harold Kumar" made only $18 million, compared with more than $40 million &

in 1978 dollars &

for "Up in Smoke." "Smiley Face" was released in just one theater.

Rogen and Goldberg were aware of the changing times and audience tastes. "We made it an action movie," Rogen says. "We were aware that if you're going to make a weed movie today, it can't be a movie just about smoking weed."

"Pineapple Express" feels less like a traditional weed movie and more like a weed movie for people on speed who need a fast-paced soundtrack and a few shootouts. And, of course, there's the "emotional story" between Dale and Saul that Rogen insists was the inspiration for the film.

At least initially.

It was going to be all head-butts and bromance, and then Rogen saw the cover of the most recent Rolling Stone, which labels "Pineapple Express" as the "greatest stoner movie ever."

Then he began to embrace the stereotype.

"As much as we didn't want to make it a weed movie, when I saw that cover I was like, whoa, that's (expletive) amazing. If you're going to do it, do it right."

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