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Rolling in the aisles 

Pineapple Express is dope, but Mummy goes up in smoke; plus, Step Brothers, Swing Vote

IT'S BEEN A roller coaster year for Judd Apatow, who as producer seems to have had a hand in practically every 2008 comedy not starring Mike Myers or Eddie Murphy. The lamentable Drillbit Taylor was quickly followed by the bright Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and now the mediocre Step Brothers (see review below) has moved aside for the rollicking Pineapple Express (**1/2 out of four). Most filmmakers might worry about having such a spotty resume, but Apatow is so prolific that he can afford more misses than most; in fact, chances are he'll have another four films greenlit before you even finish reading this review.

Pineapple Express doesn't benefit from the polished characterizations or heartfelt scenarios of Apatow's big hits The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, but as far as crude, rambling, shaggy-dog comedies go, this one's better than most of the modern-day crop. In a sense, this harkens back to the "buddy flicks" so rampant in the 1980s, odd-couple outings like 48 HRS. and Midnight Run (no wonder iconic '80s band Huey Lewis and the News was tapped to belt out the closing-credits title song). Here, the pair are process server Dale Denton (Seth Rogen) and drug dealer Saul Silver (James Franco); they're forced to take it on the lam after Dale witnesses a drug lord (Gary Cole) and a crooked cop (Rosie Perez) commit cold-blooded murder and the killers are able to trace the rare pot ("Pineapple Express") that Dale leaves at the crime scene back to the eternally fried Saul.

Pineapple Express boasts a pair of major surprises. The first is that instead of turning to a regular member of his troupe to direct the picture, Apatow chose David Gordon Green, the N.C. School of the Arts grad known for micro-budgeted indie films (All the Real Girls, George Washington). The second is that Franco, generally the blandest of pretty boys, succeeds in his change-of-pace role as a long-haired stoner who has trouble understanding the words that anyone speaks to him (when Dale tells him he's a process server, Saul replies, "You're a servant? Like a butler? You shine shoes?").

Not surprising in the least is that Rogen again scores in his role as a disheveled slacker with a way with words. Rogen's mastery of comic timing as it applies to dialogue -- especially his pauses and under-the-breath mumblings -- is invaluable to his appeal as a screen comedian, and the situations afforded his character in this film (not the least being the fact that Dale is dating an 18-year-old who's still in high school) offers him plenty of opportunities to riff.

Not that Rogen doesn't receive ample help in the humor department. Danny McBride, another N.C. School of the Arts alumni and star of the disappointing martial arts comedy The Foot Fist Way, offers broad laughs as a duplicitous drug dealer with seemingly more lives than a Looney Tunes character. And it's Franco who's at the center of what will likely remain the summer's funniest sight gag. I won't spoil it here, but let's just say that viewers probably won't ever look at car chase clichés the same way again.

THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR (* out of four) runs 113 minutes, or so I was told by my watch when I consulted it at the end of the film's advance screening. I'll have to take its word, since I only caught about 103 minutes of the picture. Yes, I committed the unpardonable sin of dozing off during a movie, but honestly, what jury would ever convict me, based on the quality of what was unfolding before my drowsy eyes? 1999's The Mummy was a barely passable Indiana Jones rip-off, while 2001's The Mummy Returns proved to be rather dismal. This one, though, is the worst of the lot -- and certainly the most boring.

The nap wasn't continuous; rather, it was a minute here, a minute there. And somehow, I managed to stay awake during the grueling expository sequences. I'm not referring to the prologue showing how, in the China of 2,000 years ago, a sorceress (Michelle Yeoh) places a curse on an evil emperor (Jet Li) who can now only be awoken by a drop of human blood; I'm talking about the excruciating scenes in which retired adventurer Rick O'Connell (series star Brendan Fraser) and his wife Evelyn (Maria Bello, replacing Rachel Weisz after the latter declared, "Screw this; I have an Oscar now!") mope around their English estate in 1946 while grown son Alex (Luke Ford) is (unknown to them) off digging up the emperor. Plot contrivances reunite all of them -- plus Evelyn's brother Jonathan (returning "comic relief" stooge John Hannah) -- in Shanghai, and from there, the gang is forced to fight the now-revived emperor.

The sloppiness of the entire enterprise is immediately evident by the fact that the 27-year-old Ford looks nowhere near young enough to be playing the son of 39-year-old Fraser and 41-year-old Bello. From there, the movie only gets more absurd -- or was I simply dreaming it all? Do the O'Connells really encounter abominable snowmen who, based on the employment of a field goal signal, must subscribe to DIRECTV's NFL Sunday Ticket package? Is there really a dragon flying about during the climactic battle, which had already contained enough CG effects to cause heart failure in a Studio Ghibli animator? (Director Rob Cohen previously helmed the lame Dragonheart, that dragon-with-the-voice-of-Sean-Connery flop, so maybe he still has fire-breathers on the brain.) Is that really Maria Bello looking so glum up there on the screen, doubtless recalling how her formidable talents are more suited to the likes of A History of Violence (for which she received numerous critics' awards) and The Cooler than to treacle like this? And do scripters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar think that audiences will be impressed by dialogue that basically consists of variations on Rick yelping, "Well, here I am fighting mummies again!"?

I'm getting sleepy just writing about Dragon Emperor, which manages to make even an epic battle between armies of the undead a dull undertaking. Wake me when this review's over. And as for this perfunctory franchise, it clearly needs to take that long-overdue dirt nap.

THERE'S A TERRIFIC SEGMENT in the middle of Swing Vote (**1/2 out of four) in which the two men running for U.S. president, the Republican incumbent Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) and the Democratic challenger Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper), are persuaded by their campaign managers (played by Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane, respectively) to do anything to win the favor of Texico, N.M., resident Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner), whose single vote will decide the outcome of this election. So when Bud lets it be known that he doesn't care what people do in the privacy of their own homes, even homosexuals, the right-wing Boone is forced to appear in an ad in which, surrounded by members of the gay community, he cheerfully embraces diversity. And when a comment by Bud is misunderstood to mean that he harbors ill will toward Mexican laborers, the left-wing Greenleaf reluctantly films a TV spot in which he rails against illegal immigrants, even as real immigrants hired as extras run across the set behind him.

These bits (as well as a couple of others) are funny, biting and provocative, and they demonstrate that Swing Vote had an opportunity to emerge as a scathing political satire (e.g. Warren Beatty's excellent Bulworth) rather than a timid political comedy (e.g. Robin Williams' execrable Man of the Year).

Sadly, Swing Vote largely fails to capitalize on its juicy sales pitch. After the debacle of the 2000 election that produced a presidency which will live in infamy, it's easier to accept great chunks of this film's premise, which focuses on how one vote in one county can place the state in the Win column for either candidate. And when it turns out that the voter is an unemployed drunk who's so unreliable that his precocious young daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll) has to take care of him, it's anybody's election, especially after Bud declares that he has an "open mind" when it comes to recasting his vote (actually, it was Molly who secretly cast the vote, but let's not go into intricate plot details right now, OK?). That comment leads to the candidates and the media all descending like vultures onto the sleepy town of Texico, with the politicos attempting to bribe Bud (tours through Air Force One, personal celebrity appeals by Willie Nelson and Richard Petty) and the press there to pry into all aspects of his life.

The central thrust of the movie isn't the election as much as it's the familial bonding between Bud and his daughter Molly. That's all good and sweet -- and Costner delivers a fine performance as a man whose love for his child eventually rejuvenates him -- but we see that type of sentimental film just about on a monthly basis. We're here for the hard truths about American politics -- or at least to watch the whole process receive a sharp kick in the pants -- but this movie shies away from them every chance it gets. Writer-director Joshua Michael Stern and co-scripter Jason Richman were doubtless hoping to emulate such feel-good Frank Capra classics as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but Swing Vote isn't inspirational as much as it's simply afraid to take a stand on anything. And given this narrative trajectory, the picture ends just as we suspect it will, not with a bang but with a wimp-out.

THE BATTLE FOR THE TITLE of Hollywood's Ultimate Man-Child finds Will Ferrell finally overtaking Adam Sandler. While Sandler plays an actual adult (well, sort of) in the recent You Don't Mess With the Zohan, Ferrell again adopts an infantile pose, this time in the service of Step Brothers (** out of four). The law of diminishing returns -- to say nothing of Step Brothers' cringe-inducing trailer -- suggests that this should represent the nadir of Ferrell's efforts, but the truth is that he's done worse. For the most part, this is crap, yet it's rescued from the bottom of the sewer by several choice quips as well as a surprising sweetness at the center of its storyline involving family dysfunction.

Ferrell and Talladega Nights partner John C. Reilly star as Brennan and Dale, two 40-ish men still living at home with their single parents (Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins, respectively). When said parents decide to marry each other, the two "kids" are forced to not only live under the same roof but also share a bedroom. Initially combative, they become best friends after they're united by their mutual hatred of Brennan's smug, perfectionist brother Derek (Adam Scott).

As usual, Ferrell doesn't know where to draw the line when it comes to childish antics on screen (the sleepwalking segments involving Brennan and Dale are especially exasperating), and the sight of Brennan dragging his exposed nutsack across Dale's precious drum set serves as an example of the sophomoric levels to which this film will stoop. But the theme of how parents and children will often fail each other carries some startling resonance (thanks largely to Steenburgen's delicate performance), and every time we write off the dialogue as just a string of schoolyard taunts, along comes an unexpected zinger (Dale's description of Brennan's singing voice being a cross "between Fergie and Jesus" is priceless).

Step Brothers is clearly a step up from this past spring's Ferrell offering, Semi-Pro (and, for my money, Blades of Glory as well), but please, guys, it's time to grow up and give this formula a rest.

To see trailers from the reviewed films, go to www.theclogblog.com. And check out the CLog on Friday for an opening-week review of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2.

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