Thursday, April 9, 2009

'Observe and Report' -- or don't

Right away I'm in trouble. When it comes to "Observe and Report," a dark and deeply twisted quasi-comedy starring Seth Rogen, I can't give you much advise.

Is it a go or no? Should you see it or should you stay home?

I can't supply that kind of opinion because I'm in the worst of all critical positions: I'm in possession of two contradictory views. On the one hand, I found "Observe and Report" repellent, a seriously screwed up comedy about a psychotic mall cop who's deluded and deranged. This walking ball of fury believes he's found his big chance when a flasher begins terrifying the mall's female customers. This is the stuff of humor you ask? Well, not exactly.

And that brings me to my second point of view. Director Jody Hill hits some really interesting notes. "Observe and Report" isn't riotously funny, but it operates on a series of strangely inverted comic principles: sad scenes often are built around gross dialogue; barely suppressed rage bubbles beneath many of the gags; and the predicaments of the characters are wildly exaggerated. That makes "Observe and Report" a comedy of extremes that's embraced by Rogen with no apparent second thought. Rogen risks his popularity by making no attempt to ingratiate himself with his audience. His character is profoundly obnoxious. I admired the movie's grim audacity. Call it a critic's thing.

Know this: "Observe and Report" is not a comedy about a guy who loves gross-outs but ultimately finds his quotient of mushy love. It's a comedy about a deviant who believes he has law-enforcement hero potential. The movie suspends you somewhere between a laughter and nausea with scenes such as the one in which Rogen's Ronnie Barnhardt -- head of security and the Forest Ridge Mall -- listens to his alcoholic mother (Celia Weston) tell him how she spent the night passed out on the floor in her soiled underwear. Not a picture you want rolling around your head. Or consider the scene in which Ronnie makes love to a drunken cosmetics clerk (Anna Faris) and Hill thoughtfully shows us traces of her vomit on the pillow.*

I bring up these gag-inducing details in a buyer-beware spirit. If you go -- and that's an every-person-for-him-or-herself decision -- you should at least know what you're getting into, namely a comedy that unfolds with little consideration for how an audience will respond.

At risk of boredom, I'll say it again. This is no more a typical Seth Rogen comedy than Jay Cutler and Josh McDaniel are best friends.

Say this: Faris is as willing as Rogen to dive into the fermented spirit of "Observe and Report." Michael Pena has an inspired comic turn as a fellow cop and Ronnie's best friend. The two share a scene in which they get high and beat up skateboarders. Fun, no?

Ray Liotta is stuck in the role of straight man; he plays a detective who torments Ronnie, exploiting his cop-wannabe delusions. "Observe and Report" has such a skewed sensibility that you may find yourself rooting for Liotta. That's because Hill tilts the board so that we're never quite sure how to react. Is it funny that Ronnie taunts a Middle Eastern mall worker? Why does Hill feel it necessary repeatedly to show the boss at a sticky-bun stand abusing one of his workers (Collette Wolfe)? And when the time arrives for the flasher to reveal all, did we really need to see it? This flasher is not only exposing himself to the movie's characters, but to the audience.

In the end, I'm not sure that Hill has made "Observe and Report" for anyone but himself, and his movie is light years away from "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," a movie that's bound to share some blame for attracting the unsuspecting to Hill's more user-hostile effort.

I don't know what to make of the movie, so I'll simply repeat that I'm of two minds about it. I found it revolting and I found it daring. I can't say that I look forward to Hill's next movie or that it makes sense for this kind of kinky indie to be released in a multiplex setting. I was amazed at how far Hill was willing to go in giving his movie a sad, ugly spin. I also didn't know what to make of the fact that two older women sitting next to me seemed to think it was pretty funny. Why should I have? Nothing about this weird anomaly of a movie makes sense.

* In case you don't get to the comments on this post, an elaboration: The cosmetics clerk is passed out at the time that Rogen's character is imposing himself on her. A reader points out that this isn't making love, but rape. Possibly to avoid the issue of rape, Hill has Faris' character wake-up during the act and encourage Rogen's character to continue. I guess that's supposed to signal her consent. The point I was trying to make was that the whole business is intended to be distasteful. "Intended" is the operative word. We're supposed to laugh because Rogen's sicko mall cop is so deeply insensitive that he doesn't care that his date has passed out and thrown up. The joke -- if it is a joke -- isn't about the nature of the act, but about the magnitude of Rogen's character's boorishness. On the flip side, the joke on Faris' character involves her nonchalant acceptance of her role as drunken slut. I'm not saying any of this is funny -- but I want to clear up any possible confusion about the nature of the scene, which I probably should have spent more time describing. Should I have used the phrase "making love" for what's going on? Probably not, but I was conscious of not wanting to be as graphic as the movie. I also was more focused on the detail of the carefully placed vomit than on the supposed main action of the scene, which may be precisely what Hill wanted. In any case, the point of what I was saying remains: Hill's movie seems to be trying to create a tension between what might be regarded as amusing and what normally would be seen as appalling.


Anonymous said...

"Makes love"? How about rapes? Because that's what he does to his *drunken* (i.e. passed out) date.

Robert Denerstein said...

You're right, but ..
This is a spoiler, so be advised.
The filmmakers -- perhaps wanting to avoid the "rape" issue -- have the passed-out woman (Faris) wake up and encourage Rogen's character to get on with whatever it is that they're (he's) doing.
In any case, I hope I conveyed that this is distasteful stuff whatever name you want to give it.
I probably should have done a better job describing the scene.