Thursday, April 16, 2009

Observe and Report (2009)

For years, directors and writers like Kevin Smith and Judd Apatow have been making spectacularly raunchy films that cloak their edginess with soft-hearted sentiment, a technique that has worked quite well quite often. Audiences are used to it now; it makes the edginess palatable, or at least tolerable. With Observe and Report, Jody Hill, following up his overrated first feature The Foot Fist Way, removes the cloak of sentiment leaving all the edges exposed and sharp. This is the bleeding edge of comedy. It casts the loveable Seth Rogen as a violent, bipolar, racist, sexist, gun-nut mall cop. A mall-cop movie could be made into typically middling Hollywood fare – indeed it was just a few months ago – but here it’s uncomfortable and even downright scary. Hill doesn’t just push up against boundaries; he tries his hardest to knock some down in a movie as volatile and unstable as its protagonist.

Throughout the film, Rogen’s mall cop attempts to hunt down a flasher who has been terrorizing customers in the mall parking lot. There are plenty of funny moments of comedy both broad and subtle during the investigation courtesy of a fine ensemble. Celia Watson plays Rogen’s perpetually proud (and drunk) mother. Ray Liotta is a tightly-wound cop who has a low tolerance for Rogen’s antics. Michael Peña puts on a hilarious lisp to play Rogen’s second-in-command. Anna Faris is an alcoholic party-girl who works at the makeup counter who goes on a pity date with Rogen and supplies a very funny scene wherein she spies Rogen’s psychotropic medication. “I didn’t know you partied like that!” she says. He answers “Oh, I do…every four to six hours.”

The date scene ends on a shockingly dark note which helps tilt the movie into darker territory which continues with a parade of ugly emotions and shocking violence. In fact, during the final sequence of the movie, there are two of the sickest shocks I’ve ever encountered in a comedy, especially a sudden moment of violence used as a sort of brutal punch-line that caused me to gasp and literally drop my jaw. It has to do, in part, with the filmmaking of the sequence which plays out in a dreamy slow-motion that suddenly slaps back to normal speed, with little warning, as fast as a bullet out of a gun. The movie gave me a kind of emotional whiplash as my stomach knotted and sank as laughter was cut off in my throat.

Rogen does a fine job in the lead. He never winks at the camera to let us in on the joke. He’s a harsh, irritating character with severe problems and delusions which are off-putting to say the least. Which leads to the question: is the film being ironic or is it complicit with its main character’s startling and unsettling actions. The finale plays out in a squirmy deadpan that borders on congratulations. Is the ending in Rogen’s head, as some have suggested, or is it homage to Scorsese’s film The King of Comedy which follows a similarly unlikable character and sees his dream realized? It may be both (the latter has been explicitly referenced by the director in interviews), but that would give the movie more credit than it deserves, would assume that Jody Hill had control over the tone of the film. At first, I feel the film’s too contradictory and sloppy for me to credit Hill with any control over how the material plays out, but then I step back and begin to wonder if Hill did know what he was doing.

There are certainly great artful flourishes to the visual style that I wasn’t expecting, great energetic editing and fine song choices too. There’s humor and moments of darkness that exist in even the same moment, a testament to at least some degree of skill on Hill’s part. That I laughed and cringed equally may mean that the movie succeeds in the way it was meant too. There’s a great forward leap in filmmaking ability here for Jody Hill, a massive improvement over his first feature. This one doesn’t exactly work – I don’t think Hill pulls off his thematic intent in quite the way he thinks he is and I get the impression he’s often pushing boundaries only because he can – but I applaud Warner Brothers, and all the actors involved, for putting out a movie so singular and strange. This is a movie that is a bit irreconcilable, but it’s a thrilling attempt to do something out of the ordinary, an attempt that’s often fascinating, even entertaining, to watch in the moment and fun to try to puzzle out afterwards. This is a movie that, if nothing else, is full of vitality and complicatedly alive.

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