11 April 2009

Movie review: Observe and Report

Observe and Report (2009)
Written and Directed by Jody Hill. Starring Seth Rogen, Anna Faris, Ray Liotta, Michael Peña, Collette Wolfe, Celia Weston.

Update: Now on DVD!

I’ll get right to the point. Two points actually.

First: I think Observe and Report, the tale of mall security guard Ronnie Barnhardt trying to crack the case of a flasher and get taken seriously as a law-enforcement officer, is genius. It’s daring comedy gold. It will make my short list for best films of 2009 no matter what else comes out this year.

Second: Viewer, beware. Observe and Report is not Paul Blart: Mall Cop. It isn’t a semi-Judd Apatow human comedy. It isn’t another “Seth Rogen: Appealing Goofball” film. No, this is Taxi Driver as a comedy, and not even in the King of Comedy style. It is dark as hell, meaner than a shotgun to the face, and frequently repellent. Think about what kind of comedies you enjoy the most before you make the decision to see this. In Seth Rogen’s own words: “There’s heroin, an alcoholic mom, and some seriously grim sex.” He should also have mentioned the copious violence.

This is the second film comedy to blind-side me this week. First was the excellent Adventureland, which turns out to have only low-key comedy and instead focuses on realistic character drama. And then this thing comes along, making me laugh hysterically while causing my skin to crawl.

I guarantee that this film will turn into a beloved classic for a small population of viewers… and everyone else will loathe it. I can already see this happening in the reviews, where some critics lambast the film for its cruelty, and others embrace its demented tone and approach to the material.

You already know which side I belong to. I appreciate a comedy that dares to do something different, to try a tact that assures many people will hate it. I came out of Observe and Report exhilarated; I love it when a movie shocks me. I love that the people making it knew they could surprise me. And I think Seth Rogen is now one of best actors in the business. I’ve never seen him like this before. At first, you think he’s just another overbearing, somewhat delusional character, similar to some other types that Rogen has played, but also very similar to a Will Ferrell character. But Ronnie, “Head of Security” at a bland mall in an unidentified city (the film was shot in New Mexico), isn’t a goofball. He’s sick. And he’s dangerous. He doesn’t need to be on the Klonopin he’s taking—he should be on anti-psychotics. He should be locked up in an institution. This man should never be allowed within a hundred feet of mace or tasers or nightsticks, let alone a gun.

We’re not supposed to like Ronnie either, the same way we’re not supposed to root for Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. But he’s fascinating, and he’s funny even as he drops deeper and deeper down the mental-illness well because Seth Rogen and writer-director Jody Hill hit the right notes. They provide a few comfortable chuckles, then push and jab at the exact point to where as viewer I didn’t know if I should laugh or cringe. And I often laughed, just because I felt aware of that tension. Date rape, drug abuse, and brutal beat-downs. Observe and Report walks a thin line, but that tension, that stress between comedy and tragedy that makes the very best dark comedies what they are, is something that Hill, Rogen, and everybody else involved executes so perfectly.

About that “everybody else”: with one exception, the other characters in Observe and Report are also extremely unpleasant folks. Ronnie’s mother (Celia Weston) is a drunk whose big triumph is the decision to switch to beer. Ronnie is “in love” with cosmetics counter girl Brandi (Anna Faris), a conspicuous consumption slut with no respect for anybody. She’ll probably be dead in a few years, a victim of domestic violence or ODing on abused perscription medication. The police detective (Ray Liotta) who crosses Ronnie’s path during the investigation into the string of flashings and thefts at the mall thinks nothing of stranding Ronnie in the worst part of town, hoping maybe he’ll get himself killed. Ronnie’s “partner” in the rent-a-cop business, Dennis (Michael Peña, making a great turn from straight drama to demented comedy), commits some despicable things behind mall security’s back. The other shop owners and clerks at the mall are a crew of mean-spirited, foul-mouthed haters.

The film’s only pleasant person is Nell (Collette Wolfe), a counter worker at the food court who has an injured leg and gets nothing but hell for it from her boss (Patton Oswalt). Nell is sweet and genuine—and obviously has a few problem in her past that she doesn’t openly discuss—and Ronnie’s interactions with her are the closest he comes to touching normal humanity. It’s clear that Ronnie has feelings for Nell buried inside, but such feelings are too regular and healthy for someone like him. He can’t even talk to her without digging down into hurtful remarks that he thinks are what somebody wants to hear. That great tension that suffuses the film emerges in this relationship: we want Ronnie to end up with Nell, but we also don’t want this lunatic anywhere near someone as sweet as her.

I can’t say enough about how amazing Rogen is as Ronnie Barnhardt. He tackles the material with ferocity. I doubt many comic actors would have the nerve to take on a role like this. I can’t wait to see what other developments we’ll encounter in Rogen’s future as a comic/dramatic actor, but at this moment I can say without hesitation that I think he’s the best comedy performer on the planet. If I were an Academy voter, I’d mark him down to remember around award season for Best Actor. (There’s no way he’ll get a nomination, of course; but wouldn’t it be killer if he did?)
I’ve always liked Anna Faris, an actress who usually gets the straightforward hot-girl parts in awful and unambitious comedies. I could sense her talent in many of her roles, even in the bad films, but she really shows what she’s capable of here. Like Rogen, she’s playing a character without anything redeeming, and Faris goes to the wall with it to make Brandi the second most despicable person in the movie. Faris is a gorgeous woman, but she turns so ugly on screen as Brandi that sometimes she’s hard to watch.

All the other actors give spot-on performances, and each gets their scene to “shine” with their ugliness. And as Nell, Collette Wolfe does truly shine. She’s so sweet you want to scream at her to get out the film before somebody date rapes or shoots her.
Observe and Report is a film I’m going to talk about for years. I’ll purchase the DVD the week it comes out. At the same time, as I feel about Requiem for a Dream, I will caution some people away from it. It will make many viewers feel simply rotten, and I wouldn’t want them to experience that. I accept that this film isn’t for all tastes. No film is for all tastes, but this an extreme example. But I do know it’s my tastes.

And it got made by a major studio! I can’t believe that! And they put it up against a Hannah Montana movie! Warner Brothers, right now I love you.

I should also point out that New York Times reviewer Manhola Dargis didn’t like this movie. That should send many of you rushing out to see it now.

Take some time to read this interview with Seth Rogen and Jody Hill about making the film. Enlightening, to say the least.