Glenn Kenny, in introducing his consideration of the love it-or-hate-it Seth Rogen comedy Observe and Report, speculated that this is one of those movies that may be less interesting than the general critical reaction to it. I think Kenny may be right, even though his comment was meant to suggest that the reaction most worthy of attention has been all the palaver about a film unworthy of support from those scrambling (or in some cases not bothering to scramble) to defend it. In fact, the most “interesting” response from critics, as I see it, has been from those writers, some generally levelheaded bearers of good judgment, some not so much, whose basic case against the movie is one predicated on the assumption that those who find it funny are clods whose moral compass has either been shattered outright or, at the very least, demagnetized.
Singled out, but by no means alone as a focus of disgust, is the movie’s alleged “date rape” scene, in which an inebriated, pilled-up Anna Faris, vomit crusted around her mouth, is seen lying motionless under the hard-pumping Seth Rogen, who has a brief moment of moral hesitation over screwing this close-to-unconscious babe-of-his-dreams, only to be berated with hilariously slurred impatience by Faris for breaking the rhythm of the attack. If you’ve seen the R-rated “red band” trailer, you’ve essentially seen this scene in its entirety already and, for that matter, the bulk of Faris’ appearance as well. She’s wonderful in the movie, but coming after The House Bunny, it’s not a role that will whet one’s desire for seeing her take over the big screen. What’s most interesting to me is that it seems that the exposure of some of those most vocally outraged by Observe and Report has been limited to this trailer, and it seems within question that some have even seen that much. Dissenting reports by the likes of Kenny, Stephanie Zacharek, Charles Taylor, Manohla Dargis et al. are one thing—agree or disagree with their conclusions, you at least can be certain that they’ve seen the movie from start to finish. But immediately after seeing O&R, which has been fairly and frequently summarized as Travis Bickle, Mall Cop, I got into what was a potentially heated argument over the movie with someone who had only read a couple of reviews and who professed no desire to see it. The basis of the argument was, “Date rape is not funny.” I couldn’t agree more, and as a result I walked away from the discussion before it really got absurd.
As I have stated here more than often, the subject of rape is one that I don’t take particularly lightly, so I stands to reason that if the scene were something on the order of revolting exploitation in simple service of pushing the comedy envelope, my moral compass not yet having been totally demagnetized, it would not be a scene which would naturally cause me to leap to its defense. The scene is, in fact, a twisted riff on DeNiro’s delusional date with Cybill Shepherd, in which he takes her to a porn movie and she runs out on him, disgusted. The difference is, of course, that Faris’ character not only doesn’t run out, but actively encourages this oafish psychosexual time bomb in his increasingly dangerous delusions largely because her own moral compass, aided by drink and drugs, is carelessly spinning out of control. Jody Hill’s satiric portrait of the deadened denizens of mall culture, of which Faris’ Brandi and Rogen’s Ronnie are but two extreme examples, have been called heartless exaggerations, but to this hayseed they looked pretty familiar. Observe and Report is clearly not a documentary, but it’s hard for me to believe that any one of us couldn’t call up real-life encounters with people who behave an awful lot like Ronnie (anyone remember high school?) and Brandi (anyone taken a stroll through a mall on Saturday night lately?).
The movie may be mean-spirited, but that quality can’t always be counted as a negative, and here I don’t think it should be, because despite its occasional lapses in judgment and tone it is a fiercely funny projection of the logical extremes of the kind of narcissism and delusional anger and reaction to social impotence that are at the center of its characters. And even if one considers these people less characters than caricatures, who ever said that satire had to be fair? One of the reasons it closes on Saturday night is that it often pushes too many buttons, and those whose buttons have been pushed here may have had been considering what the reception, or even the existence, of this movie said about the temperature of our times and our society’s tolerance for cruel and unusual punishment in its comedies. Such worries were put to rest when the weekend box-office figures came out and Observe and Report was trounced not only by Hannah Montana—The Movie, but also by the lingering memory of the landslide of dollars forked over by the general audience to see Paul Blart: Mall Cop, the huggable Gallant to this movie’s rampaging Goofus.
Observe and Report is by no means perfect—there are many instances, usually involving Celia Weston as Ronnie’s loving drunkard of a mother or Michael Pena’s lisping, slightly sinister second-in-command, in which its peculiar brand of hard-scrabble sincerity overplays its hand and tumbles into shock-value-for-shock-value's-sake territory, as does the movie’s grisly, unexpected vascular conclusion. It’s another riff on Taxi Driver, but Jody Hill turns out not to have the conviction Scorsese had to let Ronnie’s short-term triumph curdle before the end credits. Unlike its 1976 template, which was a tour of urban hell in which the viewer did not remain unscathed, Hill has the multiplex in mind which he sends his audience on its way whistling a (relatively) happy tune. He should have remembered, however, that he’d lost that crowd a long time ago, about 15 minutes into Observe and Report’s journey to cult status. And despite what you may have heard, The Cable Guy remains, at least to this viewer’s eyes, as the ne plus ultra of tonal ineptitude; Hill consciously alters the game plan, whereas Ben Stiller and Judd Apatow simply got swept away by the hurricane force of Jim Carrey and completely lost their bearings.
Lack of perfection be damned-- Observe and Report has fine comic performances to recommend it, including Seth Rogen’s best work ever, coming at a time just after I’d written off ever wanting to see him on screen again; Anna Faris’ luminosity and crack timing (even though the part as written seems unworthy of her); Ray Liotta (as the detective investigating the movie’s central streaker case, he’s the not-scary one); the aforementioned Celia Weston; and Aziz Ansari as the keeper of a hair products kiosk who Ronnie taunts with racist suspicions of terrorist activity-- Ansari got the movie’s biggest laugh, from me at least (“Why would I want to blow up a Chick-fil-A, dude? That shit’s fucking delicious!”) The movie is not pretty, to be sure, and it is at times wobbly, but it is by no means a disgrace. It is, however, a pretty creepy peek into the seeds of a culture that cultivates the kind of impotence which can, if left unchecked, result in all manner of social (and military) atrocity. Whether it is a reflection of these ills or a symptom is, as always, a call left to the viewer who cares to take the time to actually see the movie.
(Kim Voynar has what I would consider the best overall round-up of the virulent reaction to Observe and Report, including a impassioned consideration of the movie’s central controversy, in her piece entitled ”Drunken Sex or Date Rape? A Look at the Issues Raised by Observe and Report.”. It is highly recommended reading, and a far-more considered and complete look at the movie than time and/or intellect has allowed me here. Thanks, Kim, and thanks to Drew McWeeny for the tip.)