Tuesday, April 7, 2009
It's (Almost) Funny Because It's True: Early Impressions of "Observe and Report" (Volume One, Issue Two)
My access to advance screenings of Hollywood films is likely to take a permanent hiatus come the end of this month, but I find it very appropriate to write about Observe and Report underneath this looming cloud of obsolescence. It is a film from a formerly obscure writer-director (Jody Hill of Foot Fist Way cult fame) about a formerly obscure subculture (the Paul Blart-ian world of mall security) that, judging from the advertising, bears more than a passing resemblance to the Police Academy series.
Seth Rogen, however, is the anti-Guttenberg as the movie's anti-hero Ronnie Barnhardt, a tinpot dictator who somehow manages to come across as a woefully incompetent and shockingly capable human being. Hill's script is as confounding as Rogen's character, advancing too many stray subplots and loose ends while Ronnie goes about his primary goal of apprehending a flasher terrorizing female patrons in the mall's parking lot. We travel with Ronnie as he attempts to join the police academy, romance a vapid shopgirl (Anna Faris), and foil a shoe-store robbery with the help of his lisping sidekick (Michael Pena)--there's fodder for two or three movies in here, just not a single, cohesive one.
What sustains Observe and Report is Hill's caustic brand of comedy, an approach that seems openly hostile to laughter with its de-emphasis of the typical raunch and randomness of a major studio product. As such, Hill relies on two types of jokes: the terribly annoying shenanigans of thinly-drawn weirdos like Pena (whose performance would be the film's most embarrassing were it not for Danny McBride's "brownface" cameo as a Latino gangsta) and the terrifyingly real aberrance of troubled people like Rogen. Audiences can detect the type of asshole that only exists on the page and the type of asshole that exists in their neighborhood, and the vast majority of the film's successful comedy is derived from the latter.
But where Hill truly clinched my attention was in the minor revelation/spoiler that Rogen's character suffers from bipolar disorder, which might help to explain the film's aimless plotline. It also provides a rationale for its aggressively bleak nature. Hill doesn't treat mental illness like a typical lowbrow point-and-laugh punchline but a taboo to be satirized. And while he's not the first to force us to laugh at a delusional, violent creep who's just trying to do right by equally fucked-up friends and family, knowing that Ronnie's behavior stems from more than circumstance adds an unexpected layer of pathos. You laugh immediately because you'd probably cry if you pondered it for too long.
Observe and Report will probably not make a lot of money, not because it's too uncomfortable but because it's not uncomfortable enough. There's a reason that the phrase "broad black comedy" doesn't exist outside of this sentence that I just wrote. Hill seems torn between playing to the mooks in the bleachers and the schadenfreude enthusiasts, taking stabs at trendiness that sometimes work (a soundtrack awash in semi-obscure Queen tracks) but mostly don't (thoroughly mining the comedic possibilities of male genitalia). In creating an Apatow pie mixed with battery acid, Hill has concocted something that will pique the interest of the many but satisfy the palates of the few.