Pineapple Express is not a stoner movie. Weed is the MacGuffin here. It has stoners as its leads, and it features pot smoking, but this isn’t some kind of Cheech and Chong endeavor. Pineapple Express is an action comedy. Forget Harold and Kumar and think Midnight Run, but funnier, and you have it exactly right.

Last year the writing team of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg stepped out from under Judd Apatow’s shadow with Superbad, a very funny and surprisingly touching ‘Let’s get laid movie.’ Pineapple Express is such a leap beyond that film it’ll make your head spin; last year I saw Pineapple at a test screening right before I saw Superbad at a press screening and I honestly think the second film was hurt by my ecstatic vieiwing of the first. Superbad‘s good, but it’s a shaggy dog of a movie, amiable and sweet, with more laughs than story. Pineapple, while still hilarious, ups the story quotient in a way that keeps you involved in what’s happening, not just to whom it’s happening (although make no mistake: this isn’t some byzantine, plot-heavy film. It has much less story than say Hot Fuzz, which is the most recent similar film).

Seth Rogen plays Dale Denton, a process server whose high school age girlfriend is bugging him to meet her parents. He buys his weed from James Franco’s Saul, a lonely guy who just really wants to be friends with Dale. The latest shipment is a superweed called Pineapple Express; Dale’s smoking some Pineapple outside a house when he sees a murder take place inside. It turns out the home belongs to Ted, the drug lord who is moving the very rare Pineapple. He recognizes the smell of the joint Dale drops when he takes off from the crime scene and so begins a very strange, very funny crime story.

When you break it all down, Dale is the lead in this buddy comedy – he has the biggest arc and the most going on outside of the main story – but the film is completely stolen by James Franco and Danny McBride, playing Saul’s untrustworthy connect, Red. Franco’s performance is borderline amazing in a way that potentially recasts his whole career. Typecast into sullen, mumbling roles for the last few years, here he reminds us of the bright and funny talent from Freaks and Geeks. Saul could be played with typical stoner mannerisms, but Franco finds a whole character in there, filled with real human shadings. He’s pathetic, but adorably so, and he’s incredibly sweet and good natured without being a simp. Franco’s proved his chops in the past, but rarely seems to get roles that allow him to use them – Pineapple lets him have fun while creating a truly lovable character. Comedies don’t usually result in Oscar nominations, and that’s a shame for Franco, who would find himself in the running in a fairer universe.

But as funny as Franco is, he doesn’t hold a candle to McBride, the movie’s secret weapon. The first act of Pineapple is very good and the dynamic between Rogen and Franco is palpably hilarious, but the whole thing kicks up another level when Red is introduced in act two. It’s escalation in human form – the entire movie jumps up a notch the moment that Dale and Saul walk into Red’s house to find out he’s making a birthday cake for his dead cat. Including Red is brilliant in the way that including Joe Pesci in the Lethal Weapon films was brilliant (well, for the span of a movie, anyway) – he introduces a new chemistry to what we’ve gotten used to. And he’s Danny McBride, which means that there’s legitimate comedy genius on display. Talking to Evan Goldberg about the movie he told me that some of the best Red stuff – including a late in the film scene where he’s bleeding in a bathroom – is all Danny. McBride was the biggest improviser on the film, and he brings his redneck, hard rock persona perfectly. The true test of McBride will one day be when he tries a big role outside of that zone (a zone he’s in in Tropic Thunder and Land of the Lost as well), but he’s so fucking incredible in that zone right now that I’m in no hurry to see him get out of it.

Rogen, though, is outside of his zone. I had heard that the roles of Dale and Saul had originally been switched, with Franco as the more normal of the two, the guy with the girlfriend and the job. Despite having lots of funny lines and bits, Dale’s the straight man of the pair, the Bud Abbott to Franco’s Lou Costello, the less annoyed Oliver Hardy to Franco’s goofy Stan Laurel. I think that Rogen is showing a lot of generosity as a comedian here – he’s still very funny but he’s letting other guys get the best stuff in the script he’s written.

Although I guess that depends on how you define the best stuff. As the movie hurtles towards its climax, Rogen steps into a really unexpected role: action hero. We get a glimpse of Dale as a slugger in an almost shockingly brutal fight scene at Red’s house in act two, but at the very end Dale goes mano y mano with Ted, played with delicious villainy by Gary Cole. It’s a knock-down, drag-out fight that’s fitting for Mel Gibson or Robert DeNiro, and Rogen sells it. The genius of the scene is that it’s not a comedic fight; while it has funny moments, it’s just played as a big fight scene to the finish.

That’s the secret key to Pineapple Express. Again, the recent movie most comparable is Hot Fuzz, but director David Gordon Green does his action in Pineapple quite differently than Edgar Wright in Fuzz. Wright’s action scenes are much more meta and stick to the film’s central conceit: an action movie set in rural England. That means no one dies and the violence is over the top but silly. Also, Wright is more interested in Bay-sian action language, the big, stylized stuff. Green’s action is non-meta; the aesthetic here isn’t homaging 80s buddy action movies so much as just making one. Saul and Dale aren’t any more conscious that they’re in an action movie than DeNiro and Charles Grodin were in Midnight Run (the movie that should be going on Maury for a DNA test. That’s the father of Pineapple Express).

I’ve seen some people bitching about the directorial style of Pineapple, which leaves me sort of baffled. I have to assume that many of them aren’t familiar with David Gordon Green’s previous work, which has been mostly meditative, beautiful little indie movies. I won’t say that Pineapple feels like a Green film, but it does have more than one sequence that would make you say ‘Hey, why are they aping David Gordon Green in this action comedy?’ Green’s films have always been filled with nature, and the best stuff in Pineapple is the stuff shot on location. To be honest, Green does fall into the Apatovian ‘Set up the camera and shoot’ style for the indoor talky scenes, a style brought on by the nature of improv. But when something’s happening or when the characters are outside of living rooms, the film takes on a whole different life. There’s a rough around the edges indie feel that’s perfectly married to the action sequences. The film’s low budget also gives it a very specific feeling that harkens back to the older action comedies where a car crash was big enough, where you didn’t need to blow up buildings and the like.

It would be criminally remiss of me to only talk about the main leads in this film. One of the true triumphs of Pineapple Express is the way that every single character gets something unique and funny. I would gladly pay for a whole movie of Kevin Corrigan and Craig Robinson’s characters, the muscle for Ted. They have a chemistry that rivals Franco and Rogen, and Robinson once again forces us to ask why the hell he isn’t playing bigger roles. Ed Begley Jr shows up for a surprisingly filthy mouthed turn, and even Rosie Perez gets nice moments. I love when a movie allows every body to be good, gives everybody a chance to be funny, and that’s just what Pineapple does.

The problem with being a film critic is that you’re often asked to jump to conclusions about a movie soon after seeing it. If you’re the kind of critic who sees his job as issuing consumer reports – this movie is or isn’t worth your money – then that isn’t a problem, since the visceral experience of seeing the movie is all that matters. But if you’re a critic who likes to think about films, the pace can lead you to write some regrettable things. I first saw Pineapple Express a year ago, and saw it again a few weeks back. The time in between viewings really allowed me to let the film marinate and, a year later, I feel comfortable saying that this is one of the great comedies of the decade. It’s also almost certainly the best Apatow movie to date – maybe not as relentlessly funny as the others, but most successful as a motion picture on every level. I think that the fate of Pineapple will be very similar to that of Midnight Run – it’s not going to be a movie you throw on every other week, but every time you sit down to watch it you’ll be utterly engrossed and remember why you love this movie so completely. Because it’s just so fucking great.

9.5 out of 10