Observe and Report (2009) / Comedy-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for pervasive language, graphic nudity, drug use, sexual content and violence
Running time: 86 min.
Cast: Seth Rogen, Ray Liotta, Anna Faris, Michael Pena, Collette Wolfe, Celia Weston, Dan Bakkedahl, Jesse Plemons, Patton Oswalt, John Yuan, Matt Yuan, Alston Brown, Aziz Ansari, Robbie Hill
Director: Jody Hill
Screenplay: Jody Hill
There's a moment in the film when an eavesdropping wise guy walks out of the room he's hiding and overhearing the protagonist get his just desserts, and disappointingly proclaims, "I thought it would be funny, but it's just kind of sad." That pretty much sums up the experience of viewing Observe and Report.
Seth Rogen (Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Kung Fu Panda) plays Ronnie Barnhardt, a mall security guard suffering from a biploar disorder, who causes about as much havoc as the delinquents he is told to keep from the premises. Though not officially a cop, he commands a hyperbolic swagger and sense of importance to what he does, going so far as to go out to the shooting range dreaming of the day when he can actually blow away a perp who would dare cross his path in the shopping center he works in.
Observe and Report ranks as one of those kinds of movies that I think will hit only a very small fraction of the viewing audience, and the majority of those who see it will find increasingly abhorrent. I happen to be part of this larger crowd. It's off the wall to be sure, but not nearly as clever as one might have hoped given the talent in front of and behind the camera.
I'm not against dark comedies, though I do think that very few actually do it right. Dark humor is a tricky thing to nail down tonally, and only the most savvy of directors and writers (i.e. those who have a finger on the pulse of audience reaction), should probably ever attempt in a major motion picture release. Observe and Report is what happens when the tone of the film doesn't manage to ever hit a prolonged groove. I can't recall even one scene in the entire film that was able to capitalize on the scene prior to it in terms of carrying momentum. In fact, most scenes tended to go completely against the grain, where one scene played for silly comedy while the next ended up being dark, brooding and excessively violent in a way that loses the audience sympathy and ability to identify with any of the characters as human beings.
In one scene, Ronnie takes home a very drunk mall coworker he has had the hots for, Brandi (Faris, Mama's Boy). He's unwilling to pass up on his chance to finally get to kiss her, which he does shortly after she is seen vomiting. Given the right context, perhaps that might be amusing, and it does play for a retch and a laugh. Immediately after, though, is an abhorrent scene of Ronnie thrusting into a barely conscious Brandi, with traces of vomit on her mouth and the pillow she rests on. There's nothing funny at all about this scene -- it's just sad, sick, and revolting in a way that dehumanizes the characters and their situations to the point where we can't find them amusing, or even the least bit sympathetic.
Then there's a recurring character of the mall flasher, who goes around in stereotypical trench coat around the parking lot, shocking all of the women he opens it to. Like Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner, Ronnie is determined to catch this elusive pervert at all costs. The flasher subplot is an old one, and there really would seem like most comedic angles have been explored already. Not quite so much here, as we're suppose to find it of entertainment value that Ronnie, once he has the flasher in his sights, is going to unload on him in an act of extreme violence should he get the chance. The payoff isn't amusing, thoughtful, or even shocking. It's dead. It's lies lifeless, as the film has already squeezed whatever juice the fruit of ideas were once held at the time of the project's inception, until there's nothing of the fruit left but the hands that once held it, torn apart and bloodied by the constant gnashing together to get that one last drop to provide the sustenance to bring the whole thing to a merciful end.
I'm not sure exactly what writer-director Jody Hill (The Foot Fist Way, "East Bound and Down") has in mind with Observe and Report, as one can only conclude that his film is intentionally meant to be Taxi Driver if it were directed in the vein of a Will Ferrell farce. After watching it a bit, I was trying to give Hill the benefit of the doubt and search my mind for a way to justify this film's entertainment value. My first inclination is that it was a comedy based on an older, much more serious work (akin to the way an equally befuddling Rick had been based on the "Rigoletto") that transplanted a mall cap for a psychologically imbalanced knight, but I couldn't come up with just what that story might be.
The casting would suggest there would be something funny in the film, as Seth Rogen is known only for doing crass but witty (usually) comedies. Observe and Report more often goes for laughs at the expense of its characters, merely using them as vessels in order to continue to pile on uncouth repartee and so-called shocking ugliness. There is only one sympathetic character in the film, a young woman working as a clerk for a fast food eatery, but even she is painted to be some sort of born-again virgin named Nell (Wolfe, Semi-Pro), an extreme contrast to the lush party girl that Ronnie is so enamored of, Anna Faris's Brandi. Perhaps is Hill had given us just one person to anchor the film in the realm of the plausible, the rest of the zany characters might have been funny to play off of. No one can in this film, as they are either extremists, criminals, drug abusers, or sociopaths. All we can do is but watch and wonder what is the point of them all continuing to abuse one another, both verbally and physically.
I can't, with any credibility, recommend Observe and Report to anyone, as I don't really know what kind of person I would consider this to be a "can't miss" film to. Those who snicker at acts of cruelty, perhaps? Or just anything vulgar and just plain morally repugnant (the "I love Bad Santa crowd")? Regardless, even among that crowd, I still would hedge pointing them in its direction. Part of me wishes I could find someone who would actually find what Hill dishes out to be the height of entertainment in order to pick his brain from scene to scene and find out just what they found of immense value. I've read what positive reviews I could find, and I'm still stymied, as they mostly merely champion the risks that the actors have taken with the roles, and Hill in his writing. Is this all it takes to be championed these days? To make a film that few will like?
To see this done right, one could look at the works of Scorsese and realize what a masterful director he really is. In his career, he covered all of the territory that Hill can but flail around blindly in, from the aforementioned crack-up of a deranged mind in Taxi Driver to the unsympathetic characters who take things beyond the norm in the much underappreciated dark comedy gem, The King of Comedy. In both films, the idealist crosses the line of decency in order to live up to the ideals set forth only in his own mind and becomes a champion. Observe and Report is neither successful at showing us the humor in its characters, nor the core reasons for their tragedy. When the funny parts aren't making you laugh and you've already become numb to the violence, what really is there to recommend?
©2009 Vince Leo