Thursday, April 25, 2019

Observe and Report Is an Imperfect But Ambitious Dark Deconstruction of Typical Man-Children Comedies


In his time as a comedic leading man, Seth Rogen has demonstrated an admirable ambitious streak. The films rarely turn out to be all-time classics (though at least none of Seth Rogen's vehicles have turned out as badly as modern Will Ferrell or Adam Sandler features) but movies like The Interview or This is the End tend to be centered on more high-concept unorthodox comedic premises that see Rogen and company demonstrating bolder creative aspirations. This quality could be found as early as less than two years after Knocked Up cemented Seth Rogen as a viable leading man with the black comedy Observe and Report, which hews closer to Taxi Driver than fellow 2009 mall cop movie Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

In the Forest Ridge Mall, actual kindness is as rare as a polar bear in the Sahara. Both the employees and shoppers at this mall tend to be the worst kind of scumbags and that's especially true of Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen), a mall cop suffering from bipolar disorder who carries both aspirations of becoming a police officer and an extremely violent & demented personality. Ronnie is always looking for a chance to become the savior of the world and he gets just his chance when a man starts flashing women in the mall's parking lot. Taking this guy down becomes as important to Ronnie as scoring a date with Brandi (Anna Faris), a woman who works at a makeup counter in the mall who is the center of Ronnie's creepy romantic fixations.

Observe and Report's primary narrative goal is to take a premise, the typical lead character and broad archetypes found in many American comedies (the fake-out romantic interest, the eventual romantic interest, the rival, etc.) and filter them through pervasiveness darkness that brings them all closer to grim reality. This is most notably seen in the character of Ronnie, a guy who could be presented as a loveable under buffoon still played by Seth Rogen in another context. But here, Jody Hill's script and Seth Rogen's performance are clearly making this a guy who's terrifying. His casual homophobic or racist remarks, his obsession with violence as a go-to answer for anything, that disturbing rape scene, this is an individual who Observe and Report doesn't shy away from depicting as utterly monstrous.

This is especially notable in the most unnerving moment of the whole feature that caps off a climactic chase scene between Ronnie and the flasher. Previously, this chase scene had been done in a traditional style that could have fit into a whole string of 80's movies as Ronnie chases after the flasher in slow-motion as a rock song plays in the background all while both of them sprint past characters featured in the film prior. Then, Ronnie abruptly pulls out a gun and shoots the unarmed man who is sent spiraling to the ground with blood gushing all over the floor. The music stops, the slow-motion is long-gone, now the real brutality of Ronnie's actions are all that's left on-screen. Observe and Report is exceptionally good at taking traditional norms of comedy and dragging them into the most harrowing parts of reality.

Interestingly, writer/director Jody Hill's goal behind this juxtaposition seems to be subtly indicating how Ronnie's behavior isn't all that different from the "wacky antics" committed by other similar comedic protagonists in films like Revenge of the Nerds that glorify white man-children engaging in acts of creepy violence or non-consensual sexual exploits. That's one of the most thoughtful aspects of this scripts commentary on conventional man-children comedies, but some parts of this commentary do feel less polished than others. The character of Nell (Collette Wolfe) is an obvious stand-in for the type of love interests that abound in the type of comedies Observe and Report is commenting on, but the character is never given much of a personality or a purpose in the script beyond just the archetype she's supposed to represent. Observe and Report recognizes the archetype Nell is supposed to embody, but it doesn't seem to know what else to do with the character beyond merely saying that this archetype exists.

Hill's script also frequently feels messy as storylines come and go in an erratic manner that doesn't feel wholly intentional in execution. The flasher storyline briefly vanishes so that the focus can exclusively go to Ronnie's pursuit of a police officer career and then that storyline goes away so that Ronnie can solely focus on his fixation on Brandi and that similar pattern of just throwing away one story element to focus on something else in Ronnie's life keeps on going throughout the whole film. That aforementioned chase scene climax does an alright job attempting to tie everything back up together, but it isn't enough of a pay-off to make the preceding film feel less episodic.

On the plus side, there is a sufficient amount of dark comedy to be found in Hill's writing & directing and especially in the performances by the cast. Rogen is impressively unnerving as Ronnie in a role that sees him portraying toxic masculinity incarnate in a manner that's eerily evocative of real-life people. Meanwhile, the shining star of a top-notch supporting cast is Celia Weston as Ronnie's mother, a twisted version of the supportive mother figure found in many of the comedies Observe and Report is lampooning that sees Weston delivering her characters twisted dialogue with impeccable comedic timing. These performances are the most consistently successful part of Observe and Report, but even in its more slipshod moments, there's a persistent level of ambition to this whole gruesome endeavor that's as admirable as it is twisted.

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