The evolving, enduring stoner movie

James Franco and Seth Rogen in the comedy "Pineapple Express."

Columbia Pictures

As David Edelstein notes, the stoner action comedy "Pineapple Express" is the latest in a long line of pot-centric films that have both demonized and celebrated marijuana.

Before I talk about Pineapple Express and stoner movies, I wanna be clear: Marijuana is totally illegal and I'm not endorsing the pothead lifestyle. No way. I'll deny it in court, okay? Just so we're straight.

Which is more than I can say for the movies.

From the thirties to the sixties, marijuana was the demon weed onscreen; in Reefer Madness kids who smoked went loco and sweet little ingénues got killed.

Even as late as the sixties, getting high in movies was serious business. It was a gas in Easy Rider watching Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson babble about Venusians - but they all got murdered, man.

Cue the seventies-Vietnam lost, Nixon deep-sixed, malaise. Reefer Madness became a hit on the midnight-movie circuit with people in an altered state, and theaters loved that candy sales went through the roof.

Then came Cheech and Chong and Up in Smoke, like Easy Rider with no political agenda: just scruffy L.A. freaks - one blithe, one caustic - nothing on their minds but toking up.

In 1982, Sean Penn became our pothead poet laureate as Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Then, suddenly - after drug casualties, cocaine, the surprisingly potent Just Say No movement - it wasn't cool to laugh at people hacking over humongous doobies.

It took more than a decade for stoner comedies to creep back into the mainstream - first the Coen brothers' masterpiece The Big Lebowski and its improbable pothead gumshoe, The Dude.

Then Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, which begins with its heroes grooving to an anti-drug movie.

The audience seemed liberated at being able to laugh again at something against the law - and a big part of American culture.

In Pineapple Express, Seth Rogen is a pot-smoking process-server who sees a drug-related murder and goes on the lam with his dealer, the hilariously befuddled James Franco.

High times. But like other movies produced by Judd Apatow, you laugh at the dope jokes and wait for the heroes to clean up and get responsible. Pineapple Express morphs into a buddy action flick with gross-out gore, and there's something off - spiritually - in its commercial pandering. The great American stoner movies make a point of thumbing their noses at dopey formulas - in the name of a higher dopiness.