Sacrificing Art on the Altar of Commerce?
“I thought this was gonna be funny,” says a character at one vital point in Observe and Report, “but it’s actually kinda sad.” Bingo! I thought at that moment, for that is almost exactly my reaction to the film itself. Not that I thought that I would find it funny — because how this is being marketed makes it look like yer standard grossout idiocy, of which I am most definitely not a fan — but I didn’t think I would find what is clearly intended to be comedic to actually be sad in itself, as opposed to merely finding myself depressed by it as yet another example of the sorry state of mainstream entertainment at the moment.
There may be other reasons to be depressed, though.
Observe and Report is Paul Blart: Mall Cop in a minor key. A very minor key. It’s shocking, actually, how similar in some specifics of plot and character the two films are, particularly when it seems unlikely that one could have influenced the other. But the tone of Observe could not be more different from that of Blart — this is a dark, grim film only infrequently punctuated by moments of outright humor, and even its few touches of gentleness are bittersweet at best. The thing is, though, that if writer-director Jody Hill was gonna go as far as he goes with this disturbing tale — and with some aspects he goes very far indeed — then he needed to go even further. What we get is somewhere in a mushy middle that is not entirely satisfying.
Seth Rogen’s Ronnie Barnhardt is tactless, reflexively aggressive, bigoted, bipolar, and possibly borderline retarded. The tiny amount of authority he wields as head of security at Forest Ridge Mall has gone straight to his head, and he lacks any sense of self-awareness regarding anything at all about himself. A dim appreciation for the condition of his alcoholic mother (Celia Weston [The Invasion, No Reservations], a treasure as always) is the only thing that penetrates Ronnie’s shell of self-involvement, and she’s the only person Ronnie appears to recognize as an individual in her own right, not merely as someone who can do something for him.
It’s a startling portrait of knee-jerk ignorance, obliviousness, and mean-spiritedness, and unlike many movies of this ilk, Observe does not approve of its protagonist, even as Rogen’s wholehearted devotion to the character imbues him with a solid reality, if a miserable one. Rogen (Monsters vs. Aliens, Zack and Miri Make a Porno) has likened Ronnie to Travis Bickle, and that’s not a bad comparison, in fact. But Observe doesn’t have the balls that it would take to push the comparison all the way: this is no Taxi Driver, not even a comic spin on Taxi Driver, and I have a nagging suspicion that it ain’t a Taxi Driver out of fear — on the part of Hill or Warner Bros. — that a more forcefully satirical version Observe and Report simply wouldn’t have been a movie marketable to mainstream audiences.
It bothers me deeply that I can’t help but suspect that Hill held back from making what could have been a brilliant, sour work of acidic genius in favor of a movie that was focus-group approved and preascertained by studio accountants to earn a certain acceptable number of millions.
It’s deeply frustrating to see Observe keep running right up to a point at which, it seems, the real satire would kick in… and then always holding back. The actions and motivations (or appreciable lack thereof) of individual characters — such as Ronnie’s instant escalation to violence in almost any situation, no matter how uncalled for — get prodded comedically, and in an ever-escalating manner, but Hill never takes that metaphoric step back that would cast a weather eye on it all. Of course there’s a heightened sense of reality here — this isn’t a documentary — but there’s also, hovering over the whole endeavor, a feeling that Hill wants to consider why so many people are so willfully ignorant, oblivious, clueless, and selfish as Ronnie (and many of the other characters). Yet Hill never gives us a path to that.
Ronnie and his mall-cop underling Dennis (Michael Peña: Lions for Lambs, Million Dollar Baby), for instance, in one bit use a taser on someone for a parking offense, and then the movie literally and figuratively walks away from the moment just as it seems a menacing, cutting, provocative punchline of some sort was in the offing (perhaps something about how we, as a society, seem to have willingly allowed our peace officers to become stormtroopers of late). The movie doesn’t necessarily approve of Ronnie’s behavior, but it stops right at the moment at which it has evoked its shocked laughter from the audience, as if it dare not invite them to think beyond that (as if, perhaps, asking mainstream audiences to think about anything were anathema). Observe is willing to sacrifice our potential good will toward characters like Dennis and Brandi (Anna Faris: The House Bunny, Smiley Face), the pretty shop clerk Ronnie pursues, by showing them to be so shockingly self-destructive that you come to be disgusted by them, but it’s not willing to go far enough to give us pause about why they may be the way they are. It’s almost as if the movie doesn’t realize that it keeps verging on the darkest kind of satire rather than merely deploying apparent stupidity for its own outrageous sake.
The nub around which the plot turns is a flasher, the “pervert,” as Ronnie calls him, who exposes himself to unsuspecting women in the mall parking lot. In even a comedy of heightened realism like this one, you might expect, at some moment, at least one woman to laugh at the guy — what, she’s supposed to be scared of that thing? — or at least one woman to get mad at the guy and maybe even turn the tables and attack him. Instead, to a one, all the women run and scream and act like frightened babies, which allows Hill to take the resolution of this part of the plot to a place so astonishing that I challenge anyone to say you saw it coming.
But the way Hill handles that, with perhaps the film’s only stamp of approval on Ronnie, and with no indication that the consequences such an act would invariably invite are on their way, wraps up what should have been ironic and challenging all along into something that feels just bleakly nihilistic. Not that there’s anything wrong with nihilism, per se, if it’s handled right, just that all indications seem to be that Hill doesn’t mean his movie to be quite so harsh in quite this way. And it’s all especially frustrating because what I see in Observe and Report makes me want to see Rogen do what he does here in a movie by someone who’s willing to go where a story needs to be taken for art’s sake, not for business’s sake — I’m thinking the Coen Brothers, or Spike Jonze. And I want to see Hill give himself permission to do the same… even if it means mainstream audiences won’t embrace him.