Depending on the kind of person you are, Pineapple Express is either the latest Apatow Productions feature to explore the process whereby a goofy man-child learns to be a grown-up, and a good deal prettier than such films tend to be; or it is the fifth film directed by the invaluable David Gordon Green, making his first comedy, his first big-budget studio picture, and his first movie likely to attract any kind of audience outside the art house ghetto.

Amazingly enough, it doesn't disappoint on either of those counts, not really. It's assuredly the best film yet by the Judd Apatow crew, and probably Green's flimsiest - but flimsy in a way that you never have a hard time spotting the artist's distinctive style, which is more than I think most of us DGG fanboys were expecting. At any rate, it is unmistakably a film shot by by Tim Orr, and that's awfully close to the same thing.

The second script written by Superbad authors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Rogen also had a hand in the dire Drillbit Taylor), Pineapple Express never quite shakes the ghost of that earlier project: still two incompetent but lovable dudes, still a zany and mildly off-putting sidekick, still the incredibly foul vocabulary, still a focus on the acquisition and consumption of judgment-impairing depressants. The protagonist this time is 25-year-old process server Dale Denton (Rogen, still rocketing towards annoying ubiquity, no matter how appealingly schlubby he is), who witnesses a murder while enjoying a blunt made from the incredibly rare Pineapple Express strain of marijuana, sold to him by the perpetually stoned Saul Silver (James Franco). After the two determine that they can be easily traced thanks to the weed's special characteristics, they flee from the team of killers sent to rain hell upon them by the county's reigning drug kingpin Ted Jones.

From that slender reed of a story springs one of the most successful action comedies in years - not that action comedies are particularly common, nor typically very good - based in equal parts upon the writers' obvious affection for the tropes of the form as laid out by countless '80s buddy pictures, the actors' sterling chemistry, and the director's sure hand. It's incongruous that Green should end up directing a stoner movie or a summer comedy, but the fact that he's directing them together turns out to be a blessing. His natural mode has to date tended towards the introspective and methodical - you may, if you are of low taste, understand those adjectives to mean "slow and boring" - which would be a disaster for anything that needed to be as fast-paced as an action comedy needs to be (consider his 2004 Undertow, with a superficially similar set-up, and a leisurely focus on setting at the expense of narrative that could be justifiably described as "Kubrickian"). But that slowed-down sensibility fits just right for a pot-based action comedy, in which the heroes spend much of their time wavering about in a daze, trying to cling to their tattered sobriety long enough to move forward. Combine that with Green's visual style - which, to be fair, is hard-pressed to compete with the needs of the script sometimes, but you can still see it in the empty patches of the widescreen compositions - and Pineapple Express proves a thought I first had while watching Superbad, which is that the Rogen/Apatow-style screenplay was in desperate need of a really capable director to give it flesh beyond just pointing the camera at the stock company and letting the laffs happen. Essentially, Superbad is a very funny movie, while Pineapple Express is a very good funny movie.

And that's the "DGG Junkie" part of my review. As a film from the Knocked Up / Superbad / Forgetting Sarah Marshall family, the chief appeal of Pineapple Express lies in how it explots those films' strengths while largely - though not completely - jettisoning their weaknesses. For starters, this is the first Apatow production outside of his Will Ferrell projects to primarily lack a romantic plot or subplot, and speaking as one who felt that romance has never been the team's strength, I find this to be altogether for the good. It's not wholly sexless: Dale has a girlfriend, a high-school senior named Angie (Amber Heard), but she is never developed much as a character - in something like two minutes of screentime, Ed Begley, Jr. and Nora Dunn get more interesting things to do as her parents - the high-school angle is awkwardly fumbled and quickly dropped, and at the end it seems like Rogen and Goldberg forgot about her without really tying up her story all that well. She could just as easily be removed from the film entirely. Still, all that clumsiness at least means that she doesn't serve as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (h/t), which makes Pineapple Express at least a half-step lower on the Well-Intentioned Sexism graph.

Instead, the film is a buddy comedy in its purest form: two guys learn to be better human beings by helping each other out. Admittedly, that's not a very fresh concept, but it's done fairly well in Pineapple Express, thanks to some fine performances: Rogen basically plays himself like he always does, Franco is positively giddy as a joy-filled stoner, and Danny McBride (of Green's All the Real Girls) is the comic stand-out as Saul's supplier, a pop-culture addicted faux tough guy. The interplay between the three isn't always flawless (a few scenes have the taint of poor improv), but it's close enough to get the job done. I don't quite believe in Dale and Saul as characters, but somehow it seems that they're not contingent upon my belief. Everybody involved in making the film obviously believes in them, and that counts.

Against the accepted wisdom, I find myself thinking that Pineapple Express is not properly a stoner comedy; it fails the most important criteria, which is that I don't see what could possibly improve from watching it while high. It's smarter than that, though not so smart that it can't have a patented Apatow Dick Joke (and yet, not so stupid that it can't turn the dick joke a little bit on its ear). Its human core is more than enough to keep it from being just a run-of-the-mill fratboy comedy - though I expect the fratboys will enjoy its superficial "pot's awesome!" hijinks just fine - if not quite enough to make it timelessly humane. But you know, it's a late-summer action comedy, and humanity enters into the equation at all; that speaks to a certain commitment on the part of the filmmakers, low-brow trappings be damned.