Your worst nightmare: a six-year-old with a badge
Jody Hill, the filmmaker responsible for The Foot Fist Way 1, has delivered a nasty little comedy that, at a glance, looks like Paul Blart 2: Paul Blarter: a loser mall security guard gets in touch with his inner badass, takes down the bad guy, and wins over his dream girl. Paul Blart was more of a showcase for the ability of co-writer and star Kevin James to conflate self-mockery and self-actualization with a sweet, narrow-minded sincerity. That supposedly sweet center is a construct frequently applied to Seth Rogen, a regular star of Judd Apatow’s pusillanimous, misguided relationship comedies, and now the leading man of Hill’s sophomore feature, Observe and Report.
In the course of critical examination, Apatow’s comedies have errantly been credited with nuanced, “sweet” explorations of masculinity in a post-feminist landscape. His men curse, engage in recreational drug use, casually objectify women, play crude practical jokes, and generally behave like asses until they are saved from their adolescent, indolent shenanigans by a bland, stunningly attractive female who — by virtue of falling in love with characters that are patently difficult to love — wrest them into a respectful, middle-class adulthood. Rogen in particular seems to be Apatow’s muse and alter-ego, breaking out of supporting status and into the Hollywood mainstream with Knocked Up. His schlubby shtick is contingent upon audiences to believe that a guy with a mildly repellent personality (but who cleans up well; Rogen tends to hide his handsomeness behind stubble, unkempt outfits, and a six-pack six-pack),2 is at heart just a teddy bear with a foul mouth. This persona is instrumental to his casting in O&R, where his Ronnie Barnhardt has to be just likable enough that audiences won’t start hurling Orange Julius smoothies at the screen by the fifth or sixth time he’s said or done something irredeemably stupid or cruel. Hill is entirely uninterested in sweet and sincere; the adolescent fantasies of his male protagonists are not necessarily deserving of our sympathy or empathy; certainly, Hill gives them little or no respect, so there’s no reason to think we should, either. Instead, he sifts through their lives like a dumpster diver rifling through a Hefty bag choked with damaged goods. His storytelling is surprisingly intimate, and his characters unquestionably pathetic. Rather than just cashing in on the formula of the loser-makes-good, Hill’s lateral approach to the problem is a kind of exploitive compassion. Observe and Report consummates Hill’s cinematic expression of the pity fuck.
There’s been much ado about the apparent parallel Rogen and Hill drew between Ronnie and Travis Bickle during the production of O&R. Respectively, Ronnie and Travis encounter what they see as the dregs of humanity; they are both traumatized survivors of their pasts (Ronnie’s mother is a nightmarish alcoholic, and he suffers from bipolar disorder; Travis was a Vietnam vet suffering from post-traumatic insomnia); both delusionally appoint themselves protectors of madonna/whores, and both expiate their demons with explosions of brutal, disproportionate violence. The influence is obvious and a little belabored, and overall, I don’t find the comparison useful except as a point of contrast. Scorsese and Schrader’s film was apocalyptic, political, and appropriately detached when it needed to be. Scorsese sometimes offered Travis a bit of privacy in his darkest moments, and the way in which Scorsese’s flamboyant filmmaking called attention to itself demonstrated an authorial commentary and perspective on events; Hill’s filmmaking is much more tied to the fetishized way Ronnie sees himself. We may be invited to laugh at him, but Hill rubs our noses in the ugliness. One of the film’s signature scenes, in which Ray Liotta’s vindictive cop toys with and humiliates Ronnie for the amusement of a colleague, ends with that colleague excusing himself, saying, “I thought this was going to be funny, but it’s actually kind of sad.” Only a naif would miss the self-reflexive commentary in that pivotal moment, and it’s actually a rather brilliant scene. The line is delivered for comic effect, but its sting is too truthful to elicit laughter; the scene is staged with the heightened reality of a deadpan comedy, but it is emotionally sadistic. Ronnie rather deserves to be kicked in the teeth, but witnessing his abasement — and his rare recognition of said disgrace — is sickeningly voyeuristic. I’d have almost rather laughed than cried, but I couldn’t decide which way my gut was leaning . Instead, there was just a vertiginous feeling that I’d gotten sucker-punched. Unable to identify with Ronnie, all I could do was condescendingly pray that he’d take it like a man and find a way to regain some kind of equilibrium.
Without fail, Ronnie’s self-esteem can only be regained by more misguided delusion. This idiotic, racist, malignant creature’s attempts to rise above his fetters are increasingly wrongheaded. This is the pattern perpetuated throughout the film, and reciting his sins and humiliations would quickly become as tedious as a visit to a confession booth. The point is that this is not an enjoyable film, though it does have its legitimately funny moments; it is not nice, though there are some truly empathetic characters; it is frequently sadistic, though it can be read as a perversely brilliant exercise in forced identification. The only reason a filmmaker would expend this much energy exposing every obloquy in such a hapless son of a bitch’s life would be if the filmmaker understood the self-loathing that Ronnie should feel, but doesn’t.
Instead of quoting the cinematic language of an action film ironically, Observe and Report presents them in a wildly divergent context, one in which Ronnie Barnhardt might fantasize — nay, genuinely believe them to be appropriate. The film doesn’t point a finger and laugh; it leaves that to the audience. It’s the same strategy adopted by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg for Hot Fuzz, without the full-fledged commitment to hitting every cliché signpost in one film. Ronnie is the kind of guy who thinks he’s the star of his own action movie, and the film obliges him without a hint of irony. When Ronnie begs for his life, quoting Bernie Bernbaum from Miller’s Crossing, it’s not just because Hill and his cowriters thought it would be funny to reference an underrated Coen brothers masterpiece, or because Ronnie is self-aware enough to realize that his penchant for self-aggrandizement and self-deception parallels Bernie’s path of self-destruction; it’s because Ronnie has absorbed and internalize the syntax and iconography of film violence and cannot express himself in any other way. Observe and Report is the movie in Ronnie’s head, as seen by his biggest fan: Jody Hill.
None of this is to say that it’s a great movie or a defensible movie. My fascination with its intuitive, inspired insight is offset by my distaste for repugnant attitudes and incurably stupid characters. I’m particularly flabbergasted by the accolades bestowed upon Anna Faris in film after film, in which she plays repugnant and/or incurably stupid characters without any of the snap or grace of a truly gifted or brilliant comedienne. She’s perfectly cast in that respect: I can understand neither Ronnie’s love for her, nor her critical supporters’. Liotta has finally entered the late Robert De Niro phase of his career, where he sets himself on autopilot, and just enjoys playing the same kind of role to varying degrees of exaggeration. Rogen himself is a bit more of a challenge. Having seen him in film after film, I think I understand a bit of his power as a star. Like many leading men, he isn’t so great of a chameleon. He seems to operate more as a gatekeeper for his own experiences — selecting certain facets of himself to reveal, depending on the role, and tucking others away, out of sight. In that sense, he plays himself in every role; but I think there is more to him than “just playing the same guy over and over,” which was how I felt not long ago, dismissing him as a performer. I’ve grudgingly come to appreciate his presence in the right kind of film, and undoubtedly, Ronnie is a perfect role for him. Buffed up squarely in arrested (albeit severely crippled) adolescence, whatever inadequacies Rogen has felt in his life are channeled into a monstrous, pathetic golem of a character. He’s not as innately interesting a character as the film seems to think he is, but the compulsiveness of the film’s perspective is surprisingly persuasive. I never rooted for Ronnie; I felt sorry for the people remaining in his life at the end of the film. Despite all that, I was quite moved by him as a tragedy-in-progress, a perennial slide backwards. The general unpleasantness and juvenile pranksterism of the film couldn’t change that.
Depicting white, masculine, middle-class rage without descending into ignominy is a Herculean chore rarely touched upon by mainstream filmmakers without drawing the ire of a great chorus of indignant critics who are afraid that recognizing the presence of white, middle class, masculine grievances is tantamount to recognizing their validity. A close relative of Observe and Report, Joel Schumacher’s early 90s screed, Falling Down, has retained a place in film culture as something of a cult film for college-age men and a reference point for contemporary critics looking for an easy whipping boy for right-wing pathology. Both films implicitly critique their protagonists and the culture that gives birth to such twisted, antisocial psyches; Falling Down remains relevant because it does extend a measure of sympathy to Michael Douglas’s vigilante, while Observe and Report simply gives its sick puppy a place in the sun. I guess the biggest question is whether or not either film really sees its respective character as a human being or a vehicle for antisocial raving; if it’s the latter, it would be easy to argue that the film is inhumane. My counter-proposal is that by giving a voice and a platform for the antisocial misfits, they are being humane. Refusing to dignify any topic — or even a narrative construct — with dialogue is more inhumane than ignoring it. If the film is ultimately sympathetic to the ideology of these characters, the film is pernicious.
Perhaps, though, rather than a conscientious endorsement of a terribly wrongheaded worldview, it’s a one night stand. A moment of tenderness recognizing that villains and losers are people, too. I have no intention of ever seeing this film again, and it left me in quite an unsettled state. My instant reaction was to hate it, but for some reason, that seemed a bit too harsh, a bit too uncompassionate. I had a hard time condemning a film that amounts to a pity fuck, because there’s just something so desperate about it, I don’t think it merits a dismissal or inchoate rant as much as a thoughtful consideration for what kind of background could have given birth to it. While I don’t consider myself damaged goods or a psychopath, I walk through Ronnie’s world every day; I speak his language. If I won’t open a dialogue with the cinematic Ronnies of the world, who will?
Edited by Tracy McCusker.