Observe and Report: When Discomfort Turns to Alienation

I love uncomfortable comedy. Two of my favorite TV shows of the past decade, Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Office (UK, although the US one applies here as well), revolve around deluded egocentric white men trying to do what’s right and completely missing the point. It’s a genre that is extremely hard to tackle, because the laughs only work if the character is a full-blooded 3-dimensional portrait of someone we believe could exist. Despite our ability to recognize how badly they’re behaving, we’re not laughing at them– they aren’t the butt of the joke, this type of person that they’re skewering is, and we hope that the character can somehow redeem themselves. Larry David does this well, Ricky Gervais does this well, Steve Carell does this well. Observe and Report does not. It mocks its thinly sketched characters and invites us to be as mean to them as the filmmakers are. It’s all in all an unpleasant experience.

Ronnie (Seth Rogen) is a security guard– scratch that, head of mall security at a mall in a small town in North Carolina. When a flasher strikes the mall, Ronnie makes a vow to catch him. When he strikes again and flashes the girl of Ronnie’s dreams, makeup counter bimbo Brandi (Anna Faris), it goes from a desire to enforce justice to revenge. Unfortunately, Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta) from the police department is interfering by doing all of his “official police work.” Ronnie angers Detective Harrison, who tricks him and drops him downtown in “the hood.” After fighting with some crack dealers, Ronnie believes he is meant to be a real cop. He trains hard, has sex with a very drunk Brandi, goes off of his medicine for bipolar disorder– life is great. Until the bipolar disorder thing becomes a problem at the psych evaluation. And Brandi has sex with Detective Harrison.

The problem with this movie is that I don’t believe any of it. Oh, I could believe a bipolar mall cop goes berserk in his attempt to bring a flasher to justice, and I could believe he could lust after a plastic hateful woman like Brandi. It’s just the writing doesn’t believe it, so it gives us these punching bag characters to laugh at, where everyone is mean to one another. Jody Hill seems to believe that by surrounding Ronnie with all of these mean hateful characters, this will make Ronnie more sympathetic, because, well, look at how everyone treats him! Wouldn’t you protect yourself with a thick layer of egocentricity too? But alas, that’s not real character development, that’s just a meager attempt at audience manipulation as an excuse for the lack of effort to give your character dimension.

Seth Rogen tries his best, God bless him, in a role Jody Hill obviously wrote for his frequent collaborator, Danny McBride. Rogen excels in this film during dramatic psychotic monologues (if this film was written and directed to be a drama, I think Rogen would have been outstanding), but in the joke moments he reverts back to Rogenisms– not his fault so much as the script’s fault, in my opinion. Faris seems all wrong in the role of Brandi, and the rate at which her lips have inflated with collagen over the last few years is borderline disturbing. Michael Pena, who is a terrific actor, tries his damndest to make a horribly written character funny by posing humorously and speaking with a lisp, but then when the plot requires the character to be real, all of the posturing undermines the events. Azizz Ansari provides the one time I laughed in the film (he and Rogen mouthing swears at one another), but the film excuses Ronnie’s racism by making Ansari’s character such a jerk. When at the end, Ronnie punches him in the face, one can tell that Jody Hill imagines audience applause as a reaction, but instead it seems like more unjustified hatred. Ray Liotta brings his trademark intensity to a character whose depth is limited to having Ray Liotta’s trademark intensity.

Hill has attempted this kind of humor before. The Foot Fist Way was a swing and a miss, but his HBO series, Eastbound and Down, is mostly hilarious. McBride does all sorts of terrible things as the deluded egocentric white male Kenny Powers, but his character has dimension, so we believe it and we watch him trainwreck, wondering what will happen next and secretly hoping that something in this world goes right for him– even though he doesn’t really deserve it. Here, in Observe and Report, one call tell he wishes to be subversive and shocking. The shock is achieved, though not in the way he desires it. All of the shocking elements– mocking other races, mocking the crippled, date rape– are all somehow dismissed in some way, either by befriending folks of other races, making him eventually stand up for the crippled, or the date raped saying “Don’t stop” in the middle of the act. However, the shock comes from Hill believing that providing these excuses would somehow keep this one-dimensional joke of a character from becoming unforgivable. It’s not Ronnie that alienates the audience, it’s Hill. Any attempts at showing affection for this character were underwhelmed by the times we were asked to join in like Nelson Muntz from The Simpsons and meanly point and laugh at his plight.

Final note: the audience in my theater roared with approving laughter at the opening scenes, where the flasher called women bitches and asked them to perform sexual acts on him in a foul manner. So maybe I, despite being a fan of discomfort, Eastbound and Down, and Seth Rogen, wasn’t really the target audience for this film after all.

~ by russellhainline on April 12, 2009.

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