Can Violence Be Funny?

Last night, Tim and I returned to the movies, this time to see the new Seth Rogen/Judd Apatow offering, Pineapple Express. (If you’re interested in seeing the movie, be forewarned: there are spoilers in this post.) I’m a huge fan of the Apatow empire, and have been since the Freaks & Geeks days; I watched Undeclared religiously, and have seen every movie they’ve made since. If you had told me back in 1999 that everyone who worked on Freaks & Geeks would be big movie stars, and that Rogen, my middle school mega-crush, would be their leader, I would have told you that you were out of your mind. So seeing these guys succeed has always been pretty sweet for me, almost like having a group of geeky friends that all struck it big. I tend to be an apologist for even the weakest points of their films (the female characters in Knocked Up come to mind, as does Jonah Hill). And one of the things I love most about their movies is that they’re not afraid of being open about pot use (this joke about Gandhi always comes to mind). Some of their characters are stoners, some are casual users, but there’s no huge anti-drug message in any of the films: it’s just not a big deal. Hell, sometimes you can even do it after you take a promotional photo:

I offer all of this as a preface because I’m feeling kind of lukewarm about Pineapple Express, and I’m not entirely sure why. It’s not that the movie isn’t funny — I laughed out loud during it, many times in fact. I’m just not sure that its overall subject matter is necessarily something that should be mined for humor. Yes, it’s about stoners, but after its first third, the movie isn’t really about pot at all. It’s an action movie, and a pretty violent one at that.

The Apatow crew is all about mining humor from difficult places. Not necessarily dark places, or unlikely places, just places that are strewn with peril for making things funny. Having an unplanned pregnancy with someone you barely know isn’t a funny thing for a lot of people, but Knocked Up took that risk and managed to mine pretty good humor from it. The naked desperation of teenage boys fixated on getting laid also isn’t a wellspring of humor (especially for those who have daughters as a result of those unplanned pregnancies). Superbad took some really lewd stuff and still made it funny. Bad, intense break-ups, especially ones where the guy is the one devastated, aren’t all that funny. Forgetting Sarah Marshall was.

Looking at that list, there’s an obvious new frontier: violence. Can more-than-moderate violence be funny? Pineapple Express seems to be the test, and for me, at least, I think the answer is no. The movie tries to mine humor out of people getting shot, scalded, stabbed, and everything in between, and unlike other action comedies, it’s not shy about showing the gory results. Some of it works, most notably the scenes where the film shows that action movies just aren’t true. James Franco trying to bust open a cracked windshield and getting his leg stuck instead? Brilliant. And “You just got killed by a Daewoo Lanos, motherfucker!” may be a candidate for line of the year.

But there are several violent scenes that cross the line into uncomfortable. The one that comes to mind is when Franco and Rogen find Red (Danny McBride), Franco’s supplier, bleeding to death on his bathroom floor. He’s been shot twice, and has smoked some weed (and grabbed a bottle of vodka) to help kill the pain. He ends up so stoned that he doesn’t really seem to care about whether or not he dies, even though the guys offer to take him to the hospital. To make a long story short, he reappears at the end of the film, still not having received medical attention. As the guys reminisce about their action-packed day, he passes out from lack of blood, and the other two make fun of him.

Seriously, if my friend was bleeding to death and had just passed out, I would not be laughing. Even if I was high as a kite. Hell, if I was really stoned, I’d probably worry more, not less.

Even the choice to make the action scenes feel goofy and real, with tons of mistakes, ends up backfiring. In Rogen’s climactic fight scene with Gary Cole, I was literally cringing as they beat each other with blunt objects. Throwing a regular Joe into a Batman-style fight scene makes me nervous, not amused. It just hits a little too close to home for someone who’s not a particularly big fighter herself.

I think enjoying Pineapple Express really depends on whether or not you’ve crossed the threshold where you can find relatively realistic violence and killing funny. I don’t have a lot of taboos in my brain, and I enjoyed the hell out of every single one that Team Apatow has broken, but violence seems to just be something that isn’t really rife with humor for me. I’m certainly not trying to argue that you’re desensitized to violence if you love Pineapple Express — you can be anti-war, anti-killing, whatever, and still find that the film’s level of violence might be tolerable enough for you to laugh. But I can’t be the only one who will feel that it isn’t, and I wonder if this movie is going to have the kind of word-of-mouth power that the other Apatow films have ridden to glory.

Even if this film breaks their string of hits, though, I’m sure Team Apatow will recover. As long as homelessness, racism, and alcoholism are still around, there will be plenty of great taboos to break, maybe just one notch below this one. Go Judd go!


2 responses to “Can Violence Be Funny?

  1. Pingback: i•am•nirav » Blog Archive » Link: Can Violence be Funny (Pineapple Express)

  2. Hey Allie – just saw the link to this blog!

    I 100% agree. I think I found it even less funny than you. Some of them chasing the third friend (Red?) around the house was funny just ’cause that character through some mad zingers, but otherwise, I just got really upset. I left the movie feeling miserable about myself and others.

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