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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - He played tragic actor James Dean and a villain in "Spider-Man 3," but actor James Franco says he's always loved making people laugh, which is what he hopes his new movie "Pineapple Express" will do.
The marijuana-fueled action film which debuted in U.S. theaters on Wednesday, marks a comeback to comedy for Franco, after more serious roles in 2007 war drama "In the Valley of Elah" and 2006 tragic romance "Tristan & Isolde."
Well before those roles, Franco, 30, caught the eye of writer/director/producer Judd Apatow ("Knocked Up," "The 40 Year-Old Virgin") in TV critical hit "Freaks and Geeks," and he directed his own dark comedy, a short film called "The Ape."
"I hadn't done a comedy for a while, and thought Pineapple Express would be fun and funny," Franco told Reuters.
Critics mostly agree, although the Washington Post said the Apatow formula was becoming tired. Critic Roger Ebert, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, said, "It's a quality movie even if the material is unworthy of the treatment."
Franco plays dope-dealing slacker Saul Silver who, for the most part, hibernates in his gadget- and marijuana-filled apartment with his friend and customer Dale Denton (Seth Rogen) a legal process server by day.
Pineapple Express is the name of a type of marijuana that Silver calls "the dopest dope I've ever smoked." When Denton drops his newly purchased stash of weed at a murder scene, the two become hunted by a corrupt cop and drug lord.
The movie, which was produced by Apatow and based on a story co-written by him, Rogen and Evan Goldberg, is described by its makers as the first action, stoner, buddy comedy.
Apatow and Franco met on "Freaks and Geeks," on which Apatow worked in 1999, and they met again at the 2005 Austin Film Festival at a screening of Franco's short film "The Ape."
Apatow liked it and afterward said he missed the "funny Franco," the actor recalled.
Franco's part in "Pineapple Express" was originally written for Rogen, but in early readings the filmmakers decided Franco should play the part of the lazy dope dealer, to provide an interesting switch of persona.
Franco was surprised by the change but liked the idea. He enjoyed wearing Silver's long, shaggy hair (his own is short and wavy) and t-shirt with a kitten in a shark's mouth.
For inspiration, Franco watched several "stoner movies" and also admitted to an amount of real-life research.
"In high-school, I certainly smoked a fair amount of marijuana and got in trouble for it," Franco said. "I have also seen a lot of goofy stoner guys, growing up."
Franco also said his favorite characters are in movies like 1998 Coen Bros. comedy "The Big Lebowski," which he described as "a stoner movie that is more than a stoner movie."
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Alan Elsner