You don’t know Seth Rogen. You think you know Seth Rogen, and for the
first half hour or so of Observe and Report you’re going to be seeing
his character, Ronnie Barnhardt, through the prism of the Rogen from
Knocked Up or Freaks and Geeks or Pineapple Express. And then there’s
going to come a scene where you think you know the comedy aspect of it
– a blustering fool laid low when faced with reality – and
writer/director Jody Hill will completely surprise you and you’ll say,
‘I didn’t know Seth Rogen.’
Don’t feel bad. I walked in to Observe and Report knowing full well
what to expect and even I was taken by surprise in this scene (which
I’ll discuss later, in a post spoiler warning section). And it wasn’t
just Seth Rogen who surprised me. It turns out I also didn’t know Jody
I first heard of Hill last year, when I got my hands on a DVD screener of The
Foot Fist Way, the movie that brought Danny McBride to the attention of
people like Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. Hill, McBride and third
collaborator Ben Best got together again to make the excellent HBO
series Eastbound and Down (which has just been confirmed for a second
season); Observe and Report marks Hill striking off on his own
(although McBride has a cameo), and it also marks Hill going places
that make his previous work look like light hearted comedy. In
comparison to Ronnie Barnhardt, Fred Simmons and Kenny Powers look like
Ernest P Worrell.
Well, maybe not Ernest, but Ronnie is an almost astonishingly dark
character. Made up of delusions and festering anger, Ronnie couldn’t be
farther from the jolly fat slacker in which Rogen has previously
specialized. And it’s almost confusing at first, because your instinct
as a viewer is that Ronnie’s a joke. He’s a doughy slob working
security at a shitty mall, taking his job way too seriously and
obviously too full of himself. The joke of Ronnie is a familiar one,
and it seems like you can see where it’s all going: Ronnie will have to
face reality and will be found wanting, and will then find humility or
whatever and redeem himself. Except that’s not the joke. The joke is on
us. Ronnie’s capable. Deadly capable.
That’s something Hill seems to gravitate towards. Fred Simmons seemed
like a joke, but in the end he truly was the King of the Demo, and he
never learned any lessons. Kenny Powers actually started out as someone
capable, but in the end proved that he still was. And now Ronnie. A
Will Ferrell take on these characters would be like Anchorman, where
the character is blazingly full of himself but nothing else; the
hilarity comes from seeing the unfounded, unearned hubris get
punctured. But Hill’s characters, especially Ronnie, come from the
other end of the spectrum. No one takes them seriously (including us)
until they suddenly and spectacularly prove themselves.
Ronnie’s moment comes when his mall is suddenly the nexus of a series
of flashings. When internal security can’t get the pervert, the real
police are called in. Ronnie butts heads with the detective on the case
(Ray Liotta), but this isn’t some kind of buddy movie. Liotta’s there
to be an occasional foil and accelerant to Ronnie’s growing delusion,
as is Brandi, the slutty make up counter party girl whom Ronnie loves.
They’re parts of the path that Ronnie takes towards a meltdown that is
so spectacular that it brings Observe and Report from the realm of
really good movies straight into the realm of brilliance.
Yeah, the B word. If you skip to the end you’ll see that I’ve given
this movie a 10/10 score. That’s not to say it’s flawless; there are a
couple of scenes that felt rushed, and once or twice Hill loses his
reality-based comedy aesthetic to get a little schticky (an extended
‘fuck you’ back and forth between Ronnie and Aziz Ansari’s sleazy body
oil salesman Saddamn, for instance, or a drug montage that, while
funny, breaks reality in favor of a joke already done in Wet Hot
American Summer). But it’s hard for me to think of any work of art that
I would find flawless as a whole, and just because a movie has flaws
doesn’t mean it isn’t perfect. Observe and Report is perfect; it’s dark
and strange and dances right on the edge of being completely mean and
unfriendly, but manages to keep from tumbling over. It’s hilarious and
it’s unsettling. It’s a movie that will make many people feel bad;
they’ll be confused or they’ll be upset by the ending in ways they
don’t quite understand. It’s fucking amazing.
So what about that ending? Mild spoilers follow:
It’s Taxi Driver. What Hill has done here is take the basics of Taxi
Driver and made it a comedy. This isn’t unprecedented – Scorsese
himself did it with King of Comedy, which is at the very least a
‘spiritual sequel’ (as Richard Linklater might say) to Taxi Driver, and
which is a movie that Hill uses as a touchstone for Observe and Report
– but it’s ballsy. And the comparisons to Taxi Driver follow all the
way through to the very end, to a sequence that many people seem
determined to read as a fantasy. But reading the end of the film as a
fantasy robs it completely of all meaning, and is essentially taking
away the punchline of the joke Hill has been building towards for two
hours. Yes, Ronnie does do those things. And yes, he is celebrated for
it – for doing exactly what everybody thought he was crazy for wanting
to do, for doing what keeps him out of the police academy.
He wasn’t just capable, which he proved when he beat the shit out of a passel of drug dealers, he was right.
Spoilers are over.
I’ve found myself more and more fascinated by tone in movies lately.
Once upon a time tone wasn’t that big a deal to me, and I could groove
on a film whose tone was all over the place. But as my movie watching
palette continues to mature, I find myself gravitating towards films
that play tone like Django Reinhardt played guitar. I love movies where
seemingly opposite tones exist in harmony, where the director
precariously balances these tones and makes them work. I’m less
interested in a straight comedy these days, and I find myself drawn to
funny movies that include manifestly unfunny scenarios. Observe and
Report really fits into that; the film is the story of Ronnie’s
massive, violent nervous breakdown, and taken from any other
perspective would have been a dark, moody piece. But Hill, proving
himself am incredible filmmaker, makes his take work.
Hill’s not alone. Rogen obviously makes the entire movie work. The
scene with the drug dealers is played perfectly, as is one where he’s
telling his sociopathic fantasies to a police psychiatrist. Rogen has
an innate likability that does sort of mask the depths of Ronnie’s
darkness at first, but that’s why he’s a great choice. You wouldn’t be
surprised when Danny McBride goes the places Rogen goes at the end.
Anna Farris also proves that she just needs the right material; a
naturally funny actor she has the chops and willingness to go
uncomfortable, non-mainstream places. I wish somebody could get her out
of movies made for mall crowds and into more films like this.
Michael Pena is probably best known for his dramatic work in films like
Crash and World Trade Center, but here he proves he has serious comedic
skills. At first I wasn’t that into his character, Dennis, who is
Ronnie’s right hand man on the security team. But eventual revelations
and twists add layers to early scenes, and Dennis ends up coming quite
close to stealing the entire movie.
How will Hill top Observe and Report? It’s hard to imagine he’ll be
able to do so within the studio system; this movie reminds me a lot of
Watchmen: Warner Bros movies that are shockingly daring, involve
surprise compound fractures and have lengthy scenes featuring male
genitalia. Will it also hit – or rather fail to hit – like Watchmen?
Will Observe and Report prove that Paul Blart Mall Cop is what
Americans want out of their comedies? Safety, blandness, idiocy? The
important thing, I guess, is that he got this one through. This is
classic smuggling: taking a buzzed about filmmaker and a very popular,
mainstream star and teaming them up to make something uncompromising,
strange, uncomfortable and dark.
Observe and Report is an amazing movie… for the right audience. I’m
not dumb enough to think that this movie is for everyone; there will be
people who simply won’t understand why other folks are so desperately
in love with it. There will be people who don’t quite see why many of
the jokes are funny (such as the ending – shocking, violent, sick and
in my opinion one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a movie in
years), and who wonder how anybody can stomach these characters. But if
you’re that special kind of viewer, the kind who likes to be
challenged, who likes to go places sane people avoid, who thinks
transgression isn’t just desirable but also kind of hilarious, Observe
and Report might be your favorite movie of the year.