Saturday, September 19, 2009

DVD Review: Observe and Report

I have to admit: I love Jody Hill’s absurd and obscene television series Eastbound and Down. It creates one of the best alternate realities I’ve seen in any show. It is artistically grotesque and gratuitous. People say whatever they want in front of anyone…and it doesn’t seem to faze anyone. It’s walking a fine line, making this kind of comedy, but one only needs to watch Eastbound and Down and then take a look at something like Step Brothers (both are exec produced by Will Ferrel) to see how one does gratuitous comedy well. With Hill’s newest film Observe and Report I fall somewhere in the middle. There were moments in Observe and Report that reminded me of the failings of Step Brothers and the successes of Hill’s own Eastbound and Down.

The film is obviously indebted to Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy as head of mall security Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) lives in his own alternate world. He feels like every person who enters the mall is his to protect from the evil of the world (there is a subtle commentary here on how Travis Bickel was protecting New York from the scum of the 70’s, and here Barnhardt is protecting his town from the consumer-minded mall crowd who mindlessly lap up all the new “stuff” that is pitched to them via ads). His narration is a lot like Travis Bickel’s – guiding us through moments of the story constantly reminding us that he’s keeping his world (the mall) safe for those that enter.

The story is thin on the surface (like I said there is some interesting stuff beneath the surface here) as a flasher running around the mall exposing him to every woman he sees. One in particular Ronnie is smitten with: Brandi (Anna Farris) who is a cosmetician at the mall. The flasher act as a catalyst for the downward spiral Ronnie goes down. He is so delusional there’s a great scene where he asks Brandi out on a date, she sees that he is taking pills for his bi-polar disorder. She says "I didn't know you partied like that...". Ronnie then gives her the bottle of pill and stumbles his way into having sex with her…oh, never mind she’s passed out and there is clearly vomit on her pillow. The scene is now infamous, but there is a key phrase uttered during the moment that makes it funny, and not just a date rape joke gone awry.

There are, however, many jokes that just kind of fall flat. The absurdist humor doesn’t always work as we see with the cameo of Hill stalwart (and Eastbound and Down star) Danny McBride as a crack dealer, Ray Liotta as a cop who doesn’t think much of Ronnie, and rivalry between Ronnie and a Middle Eastern booth merchant at the mall that leads to one of the weirder Dada-esque moments.

Another reason the film isn’t a total success is the casting of Rogen. Ronnie is both earnest and ugly, and Rogen can play the former, but it’s impossible for Rogen to be unlikable. His pudgy face doesn’t work for this role and his range as a comedian isn’t there yet. He just wasn’t right for Ronnie as he could only pull off the sympathetic part of Ronnie and not the insane part that makes us question our empathy towards the character. The aforementioned Danny McBride would have been perfect for Ronnie.

The stuff that works is great, though, and familiar if you’ve seen Hill’s television show (or other feature film The Foot Fist Way): Ronnie and his co-worker go on a drug induced rampage beating the living hell out of skateboarders, Ronnie happening upon Brandi and Liotta’s detective having sex in a car, and countless scenes that play like Rupert Pupkin greatest hits of uncomfortable moments – specifically a psychological exam Ronnie takes for the police department and a sit down with Ray Liotta where he learns he isn’t going to be on the force…at which point one of Liotta’s co-workers who is hiding in a closet comes out and says “I thought this was going to be funny…but it’s just kind of sad”. Exactly.

Hill has talent, and even though Observe and Report doesn’t always work there are countless moments in between the awkwardness that show you this is a one of a kind director. He films a showdown between Barnhardt and the police with the same kind of deranged energy found in Mean Streets. The final chase seen to the very appropriate Pixies song “Where is My Mind” is a nice touch, too, and he employs his North Carolina film school friend Tim Orr to shoot the picture. There’s nothing overt about the aesthetic letting us know the moments where Ronnie has lost his mind; rather, Hill just leaves it up to the viewer to understand that this is an unstable character who does bizarre things for the sake of the “law”, but really he’s just off in his own little world.

Hill came from the North Carolina film school where he met Danny McBride, Tim Orr, and David Gordon Green (who directed half of the first season of Eastbound and Down) and you can see the talent that is there. Hill isn’t interested in making traditional comedies. His tastes lean more towards the Dada-esque and the absurd, creating characters who say things in front of others that they could only get away with because they exist in their own alternate world. I didn’t think one way or the other about Observe and Report, but I have noticed that I can’t stop thinking about it. Certain scenes keep playing over in my head, and I keep thinking about Ronnie’s character and how we don’t see too many characters like that in comedy. So, despite its flaws I find myself still thinking about it, and that’s saying something for a comedy (which are usually memorable or so bad you can’t wait to get the taste out of your mouth). Fans of The King of Comedy, or just alternative, un-PC comedies will enjoy the allusions throughout Observe and Report and will find something humorous amidst the obscenities and absurdity.


  1. Excellent and insightful review!

    I had similar thoughts when I saw the film in theaters (though I think I may have enjoyed it slightly more than you).

    However I do disagree with one assertion you posit. My big question is...will Seth Rogen ever be likable? I know I'm in the minority, but I can't stand the guy and I thought this role was perfect for him!

    Click the link to read my full review.

  2. David:

    There was no link for me to click on...I will just visit your site instead.

    As for Rogen, I think what I meant was more in terms of his casting. He can't play against type -- which is the chubby, lovable loser. He's too darn likable (at least that's the intent of the screenwriters who write scripts with him in mind) to play for dark comedy.

    I think I liked the movie more than I let on in my review. I'm still thinking about it almost a week after watching it. I really want to see it again. Although, I think it's more of a case that I'm describing the movie I want it to be and not the movie that is. Who knows. Only another viewing will help answer those questions.

  3. Kevin, just click my name and it should take you to the specific Observe and Report review, otherwise, you mide have to search on my blog for it.

    And I agree, the film was oddly thought-provoking for a comedy.

  4. It is great Comedy plus drama movie. The movie is directed and written bu Jody Hill. I have seen it 2 times and equally enjoyed every time..

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