The advertising art for Nanette Burstein’s new documentary American Teen is an exact parody of the poster for The Breakfast Club, with Burstein’s “real teenagers” substituted for the Brat Pack actors of John Hughes’ 1985 youth market hit. The direct similarities end there, but the middlebrow social impulse is pretty much the same. Whether the setting is a fictional detention class of Hollywood-style high-school rebels or a cross-section of real-life students in a typical small Midwestern town, everyone is fascinated with teenagers.
There’s no Molly Ringwald or Emilio Estevez among the five adolescents from quiet Warsaw, Indiana (pop. 12,500) selected by doc-maker Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture, American Shopper) to represent America’s future in microcosm. We could complain about how there’s no one of color, no black or Latino or Asian kids, but maybe there are none in Warsaw (that’s doubtful), or perhaps the filmmakers really are hewing closely to Hughes’ white, middle-class template.
In that case, let’s raise a muffled cheer for Hannah Bailey, the Ally Sheedy of the piece. In common with Sheedy’s Breakfast Clubber, Hannah is the class misfit — skeptical, hyper-aware, politically liberal, a bit awkward socially, a punk rocker, and future art schooler with a fuck-you attitude that gives way to a sweet, huggable vulnerability. She’ll undoubtedly grow up to be the editor of an influential content provider in New York. Meanwhile she has to put up with being a toy for Mitch Reinholdt, the good-looking jock and prom king. Contrarian Hannah is accustomed to adversity. The situation with her father is pathetic — he seemingly drifts from place to place looking for work, while his daughter lives with her grandmother.
Hannah’s counterpart, the other beautiful loser we’re pulling for, is Jake Tusing, the school nerd who plays clarinet in the marching band, longs for a girlfriend to hang out with, and strongly resembles Sid Vicious, right down to the facial acne. He likens his lonely predicament to that of a misplaced item of laundry: “I’m one sock.” Awww. When Jake finally gets out of Warsaw for a drunken binge in Tijuana and hooks up with a girl from San Diego, it’s as if a new world opens up. It’s called “California.”
Compared to Hannah and Jake, the three other kids initially come off as boring, privileged overdogs. Most colorful of these is basketball star Colin Clemens, the guy with the Elvis impersonator dad. Colin’s biggest worry is getting an athletic scholarship to college — otherwise, his folks can’t afford the tuition. Carefree Mitch, with his handsome affability and sensitive nature, seems poised for an imminent major letdown. Maybe he’ll end up hitched to Megan Krizmanich, insufferable local rich girl and class socialite, the sort of person who delights in tearing down school election campaign posters. Queen bee and malicious gossip Megan also has her cross to bear, the suicide of her sister, but that won’t stop her. We can imagine her one day leading a book censorship effort.
Still, they’re so goddamned nice, even Megan the bitch. We could say the same for writer, co-editor, co-producer, and director Burstein’s project itself. It keeps assuring us that all is basically well. No messy massacres like the one in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant or political backstabbing à la Alexander Payne’s Election. American Teen was evidently a smash at Sundance, so it received the official commercial seal of approval, even though it probably won’t sell as many tickets as any of Hughes’ high-school comedies. Nevertheless, if we leave the theater curious about the parts left out, there’s always Seventeen, Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines’ 1983 documentary about the kids in another Indiana town, Muncie, who act out their frustrations in an altogether more convincing manner. It’s going to be hard to find on video (it was made as part of the PBS TV series Middletown but never aired), but Seventeen could never be confused with the pilot for an upcoming teenage sitcom.
There’s actually only one high-school character in Pineapple Express — the Seth Rogen character’s jailbait girlfriend — but the latest bracingly vulgar plex fodder from the Judd Apatow laff factory is dedicated to perpetual adolescence. Let’s hear it for the return of the stoner comedy. Did it ever really go away?
The mind-bogglingly prolific Apatow (Step Brothers, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, Superbad, The 40 Year Old Virgin, etc.) is inescapable these days. In common with the aforementioned John Hughes or the Farrelly Bros. before him, high-flying writer-producer Apatow has seemingly captured the zany zeitgeist in a beer can. Or, in the case of Pineapple Express, a bong.
Rogen, flabby star of Apatow’s Knocked Up, plays Dale Denton, a buffoonish process server who fills his down time smoking the primo pakalolo dispensed by his main man Saul Silver (James Franco of the Spider-Man movies, completely transformed). Essentially Dale, Saul, and their combative buddy Red (Danny R. McBride) spend most of the movie smoking weed, forgetting things, and ineptly fleeing from gangsters and crooked cops. Franco’s Saul steals the movie easily, tossing out inspired meathead physical comedy and the type of non-sequitur (written by Apatow, Rogen, and Evan Goldberg) that makes no sense except in context, and then it’s suddenly the funniest line ever written. As when husky-voiced Saul describes the bouquet of the title grass as “god’s vagina.” Everyslob Rogen, with his Albert Brooks exasperation, is almost as amusing in the straight role, a relative term in this case.
The neglected feel of the sets and props is perfect down to the last knickknack. Every single interior looks like a crime scene. The writers also establish certain cultural details: Saul’s Jewishness (he constantly talks about his bubby waiting up for him) and the persistent homosexual innuendo amongst the three guys (Saul’s love-smitten gaze at Dale, Saul and Dale’s handcuffed “humping,” Red’s allusion to his career as a prostitute, etc.). In keeping with industry standards, the guffaws are salted with realistic, brutal violence — this is possibly the first time a blackened, burnt corpse is played for laughs. It all flows by like so much sugar water.
Apatow & Co. are so confident with their winning touch that they populate Pineapple Express with a roster of character actors from their formative years: Kevin Corrigan as a hit man, Nora Dunn and Ed Begley Jr. as the ridiculous parents of Dale’s girlfriend Angie, James Remar as the eye-patched officer in the prologue, and Rosie Perez, here underused as a corrupt policewoman. They might as well have gone all the way and cast Cheech & Chong. But those old dudes are far too laid back — they’d never fit in.