Playing with Guns
By Michael Koresky
Observe and Report
Dir. Jody Hill, U.S., Warner Bros.
Not every chintzy Hollywood comedy that comes down the pike need be held up as an example of the State of Contemporary Entertainment, but a film like Jody Hill’s pretend-flippant, zeitgeist-baiting Observe and Report practically begs for serious consideration. And who am I not to take the bait? And since the film is as assaultive and glib as it wants to be, I’ll lower myself to its level right up front and directly state that Hill’s proudly “dark,” emptily “provocative” Seth Rogen vehicle is shocking only in its blatant contemptuousness for suburban America, not for its silly, prurient plot contrivances and slickly packaged audience goosing. Even if Hill (whose prior film, The Foot Fist Way, has its passionate defenders, but just got deleted from my Netflix queue) aims for some sort of tacky commentary on warped machismo, in which a mall security cop’s swaggering delusions of grandeur eventually spiral out of control and wreak havoc on those around him, his message, as it were, gets lost in a tired, generic movie language. Not just failing to subvert the basics of film to get his point across, Hill isn’t even sophisticated or daring enough to meld his movie’s ghastly shocks with the ingredients of veritable comedy. These days, shock factor trumps careful comic calculation: why mount a successful joke when you can just flash a penis onscreen and be called “visionary” and “raw”?
Quite a few self-respecting critics seem to have fallen for this one, the nadir of the endless parade of stunted man-child films, which somehow gets bonus points simply for admitting its main character actually is potentially psychotic (Lisa Schwarzbaum calls it “risky” and “riotous”; David Edelstein claims it “goes straight for the action-comedy genre’s underbelly, which turns out to be dark, violent, and jiggly.”) As if providing a diagnosis grants him a prescription to indulge freely in bad behavior, Hill mounts a flashily unpleasant compendium of nervous laughs predicated on misogyny, racism, and alcoholism, all of which wouldn’t be as objectionable if his film didn’t have a constant air of self-righteousness, an attitude that tells its audience they’re not only going to laugh, but that they might just learn something, too. This instructiveness is there right from the start, in the film’s early quick cuts of Rogen’s Ronnie at a shooting range, a dead-eye hitting his targets—head and crotch—with blammo precision (he’s so quintessentially American!); it’s there in the cutaways to mall-going fatsos greedily slurping down banana splits and trashy women flaunting their tightly packed assets; it’s there in the protectively ironic, distancing use of the Band and the Pixies in its opening and closing credits; it’s there in the viciously sad interactions between Ronnie and his constantly sauced mom (Celia Weston, putting her considerable talents to evil use). This is you, America, and doesn’t it make you feel shitty to giggle at it?
Hill’s approach, to implicate the audience in its laughter, isn’t far from that of Eli Roth, whose Hostel Part 2 similarly satisfied its viewers’ bloodlust and then chastised them for watching. It’s obvious to state that Observe and Report isn’t smart or trenchant enough to pull off such spectatorial trickery, but it must also be said that its pretenses to such darkness mask a truly cowardly interior. Regardless of its tendencies towards the grim, Hill’s film wants nothing more than to ingratiate and make a memorable antihero out of its hateful protagonist. So even at its most depraved moments, the audience gets an easy out. Hence, at the climax when Rogen actually shoots, with a real bullet, his longed-for prey, a flasher who’s been stalking the mall’s women since the opening credits, and blood and gore sprays all over the perfume counter, of course the “pervert” survives, his shoulder wound apparently not serious enough that he can’t be easily walked out of the store with a police escort. And when Ronnie verbally abuses a mall employee of Arab descent (Aziz Ansari) by calling him “Saddam” and accusing him of plotting to blow up the food court’s Chick-fil-A, the film plays their encounter as an expletive-laden mano-à-mano battle of wills in which a repeated, unvaried volley of “fuck you”s puts the two men on equal ground, neutralizing Ronnie’s singularly explosive dangerousness.
Yet the most reprehensible example of the film’s desire to have its cake and devour it too comes during the already much-discussed date-rape scene, in which Ronnie takes out his dream girl, the cosmetics clerk Brandi (Anna Faris, squandering my prior good will towards her), who reveals herself to be a slatternly pig (a mini version of his mom, natch), berating waitresses, ordering herself multiple drinks, and taking Ronnie’s bipolarity pills, all before Ronnie fucks her while she’s passed out on her bed in a pool of her own vomit. Apart from the film’s evident, nefarious implication that Brandi asked for it by virtue of her intentional, self-motivated drunkenness (in a quick and mean montage, she sucks down daiquiris and four tequila shots, her speech getting increasingly slurred), the film also gives its audience the ultimate out: after cutting to Brandi, mouth open, eyes closed, face in upchuck, seemingly nonresponsive as Rogen pounds away on top of her, she suddenly lets out a mewling “don’t stop.” Imagine if she hadn’t said anything and had remained for all intents and purposes dead to the world—would the unspoken contract of comedy have been breached? Would Hill, Rogen, and company have finally attained that bullshit transgressive darkness they seem so mindlessly eager to attain? No, Brandi wants it, and Ronnie, Rogen, and the audience are all let off the hook. Move on to the next laugh riot.
Somehow the film’s treatment of Brandi, and Faris’s manically contorted performance of her, seem perfectly appropriate to the Hill and Rogen (and dare I say, post-Apatow?) brand of comedy. Perhaps Hill would have us believe that Brandi and Ronnie’s mom are so abhorrently caricatured that his film is inescapably commenting on male-centric American comedy’s inherent misogyny, now naked and proudly exposed for all the world to see. Yet for a film that opens with a flasher violating women with his flaccid member (a pretty solid metaphor for comedy circa 2009), the treatment of women isn’t complicated enough to register as valid critique. Especially since the film’s one non-grotesque female, a food court employee (Collette Wolfe) with a sparkling smile and a multisyllabic vocabulary, inexplicably throws herself at the obviously demented Ronnie just in time for a happy ending. (To make matters more offensive, she has to spring herself from the wheelchair and cast that limit her due to a vitamin deficiency and get a snazzy perm before Ronnie, and the film, views her as an attractive human being.)
Really, the only acceptable conclusion for Observe and Report—one that would remain consistent with both its characters and its director’s apparent vision—would have been for Ronnie to end up with Brandi, his designated match in nearly every way, living maybe with a couple of screaming kids, their miserable, codependent, violent relationship bringing them nothing but despair and misery. Instead we get a (possibly hallucinatory) shoot-out that brings the “pervert” to justice and a round of applause for Ronnie, so that, even with that glimmer of doubt and discomfort, we can all go home relatively happy. After all, with its by-the-book guitar-rock soundtrack and rote satires of masculinity (a slow-motion descent down an escalator with Ronnie and his security-guard buddies; right-hand-man Michael Peña’s hetero lisp act, a tired variant on familiar ground tread by the dubious likes of sketch comics Tim Meadows and Horatio Sanz), Hill’s film is less a comic variation on Taxi Driver, which it obviously aims to be, than just a natural extension of the childish everydude play-acting that currently passes for hilarity.
“I thought this would be funny, but it’s just sad,” a character says at one point; it’s a calculated meta-moment that, like the rest of the film, feels disingenuous. Derangement and distastefulness don’t automatically pass for insight, and replacing yuks with anger and morbidity is an easier trick than it appears. (Look at Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa for an example of the precarious, but possible, balance of pleasantries and putrescence). In Observe and Report, the joke’s on us—for, what, expecting jokes?