Earlier this week, a friend of mine invited me* to attend an early screening of the upcoming movie Observe and Report, the second film from Jody Hill, director of Foot Fist Way and co-creator of Eastbound and Down. The movie doesn’t come out until April 10th, so look at me, what a hotshot. Jealous? Don’t be. My life is a waking nightmare. Anyway, Observe and Report. Let’s talk about it.
First of all, I haven’t gone to a movie with such high expectations in a long time, which speaks to the high quality of Jody Hill’s work and to the speed with which he has established his reputation. This guy, along with Danny McBride, have come out of the gate like something that comes out of the gate very quickly. Sure, Foot Fist Way was made in 2006, but it didn’t get distribution until last spring. Danny McBride is all over the place now. And Eastbound and Down is the best fucking show on television. So, I wanted to see this. The trailer makes it look like Paul Blart: Mall Cop done in a world that doesn’t settle for mediocrity. It also makes it look hilarious.
Which it is, kind of. (SO MANY SPOILERS AHEAD.)
Observe and Report is about a mall security guard, Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen), who lives with his mom. As the movie begins, Ronnie has decided that catching and arresting, or I guess restraining, a flasher who has been terrorizing customers in the parking lot is his life’s purpose. He’s also in love with Anna Faris, who works at a Department Store cosmetics counter (everything is pretty generic). When a local detective (Ray Liotta) comes to the mall to investigate the flasher, Ronnie sees him as a threat, but also as an inspiration, as Ronnie then tries to join the police force. He is denied entry after failing the psychological exam, because Ronnie is bi-polar and decides over a dinner of tequila shots with Anna Faris that he will stop taking his medication. Needless to say, Ronnie’s life spins perilously out of control, and the redemptive “happy ending” is that he crawls his way back to the life he had when he started, plus a girlfriend from the Cinnabon (or Cinnamon Roll Hut, or whatever).
Much like Foot Fist Way and Eastbound and Down, Jody Hill is Gervaisian at making comedy out of the sadness of life in the lower middle-class. His characters are always kind of poor, but not too poor, and they’re miserable, but not too miserable. They kind of scrape by and might even be doing well if they weren’t getting in their own way. In Observe and Report, the humor comes from Ronnie’s arrogant ignorance of his own insignificance, and the bumbling disasters that make up his friends and family. His mom is a raging alcoholic. His best friend is a petty thief who ends up beating the shit out of him. His co-workers are borderline retarded. And the woman he loves is a shallow narcissistic nightmare who hates his guts. LOL. Seriously, LOL. It’s funny. By the time you have accepted and lived in the world of the movie, you do laugh when Ronnie finally has sex with Anna Faris, who is drugged out of her mind, lying on a pillow covered in vomit. You do laugh when he acts like an otherwise abhorrently racist boor to an Indian kiosk employee (Aziz Ansari). And it’s not that we laugh to keep from crying, that’s too pat. The reality that comedy like this confronts us with is that things that are terrible are funny.
But things that are terrible are also painfully unfunny, and Observe and Report has lots of that, too. I don’t want to sound like a middle-aged dad who just got home from Bible Study Class, but there are a few moments of incredible violence in this movie that almost ruined the whole thing for me. In the trailer, you get a glimpse of Ronnie and another security guard beating up a bunch of adolescent skateboarders, and when I saw that in the trailer I laughed. Clotheslining a 13-year-old is funny. But I fully expected this scene to follow the Hollywood rule that in order for Ronnie to earn the right to beat up these kids, they would have spent an hour berating him and being punks. Nope. I guess it’s implied that they graffiti the walls, but mostly he just comes up out of nowhere and beats up children. And I mean beats the shit out of them. He breaks a skateboard over a child’s head. It’s horrible.
Later, in a drug-free bi-polar meltdown, Ronnie somehow is capable of beating up a gang of cops. And again, we’re talking American History X kiss the curb type face crunching. It’s weird, and it’s unsettling, and it’s not even a little bit funny. Remember how he is mentally ill? Right.
And then there is one of the film’s final moments, which is actually, quite literally, shocking. No spoilers.
There are no consequences in this movie. Ronnie receives physical retribution from the cops in the form of a swollen-shut eye and a face-full of stitches, but he never goes to jail? The parents of the skateboarders don’t sue the mall for egregious physical assault on a minor (I’m not a lawyer, but I rest my case). If we’re dealing with the cringe-comedy of intense reality, then let’s deal with the cringe-comedy of intense reality. If I’m accepting the world we live in, in all of its misery and crushing failure to be a source of comedy, then that world has to have rules that I recognize.
Seth Rogen is good, although you can tell that this movie was probably written and green-lighted when Danny McBride wasn’t famous enough for a studio to back him, because the role has Danny McBride relegated to a half-successful cameo as a drug dealer. And Anna Faris is great. This is probably her best chance at finally being considered an actual actress, which is actually incredible considering how well respected she is by intelligent people with good taste. How did that happen? I can’t think of a single other person whose career has been such a consistent string of absolute garbage who has been given such a free pass. Whatever. You go girl. Shots on me!
So, in the end, it was kind of a mixed film. The parts that were funny were really funny, and the parts that weren’t really weren’t. And not weren’t in the normal sense of a comedy with low points or jokes that don’t hit, but weren’t in the sense of holy shit, what is going on here? Oh no! Fuck!
You should go see it, though. I mean, I do recommend it. April 10th. Fandango.
*I’m not showing off. I don’t get invited to anything. Boo hoo. Seriously, though, some of the people at this screening? What time does high school get out? And why is Warner Brothers inviting 14-year-old sufferers of attention deficit disorder to exclusive preview screenings and not Lindsay and Gabe? A rare miss, Hollywood.