Friday, April 17, 2009

Observe and Report

Jody Hill might have a long career as the anti-Apatow if he can just cut down on the insufferable drag in his movies. Indeed, as much as Apatow and his crew's films have that tell-tale lag in the middle, they have nothing on the moments of excruciating downtime in Hill's fun but overrated debut The Foot Fist Way. Observe and Report, one of the most deceptively marketed films in recent memory, makes FFW look downright taut in comparison.

As with The Foot Fist Way, Observe and Report follows a pudgy, sad outsider as he slowly gives into his disturbing psychosis. Also like the protagonist of his debut, Seth Rogen's Ronnie slaves away at a laughable job he badly performs. But that job is all he has and he treats it with absolute sincerity. Head of security at a local mall, Ronnie stalks the corridors and the stores, fancying himself a real officer of the law as he curses all those who irk him while remaining oblivious to the jeers of everyone. His ragtag band of guards aren't much saner than their leader, and some of them look forward to the day they can carry real firearms in the mall.

As Ronnie walks around, medicated on mood levellers to stave off complications from his bipolar disorder, only one person snaps him out of his disturbing reveries: Brandi (Anna Faris), the ditzy, slutty blonde who works the makeup counter. When a flasher exposes himself to the young woman, Ronnie sees his chance to be the hero and win the girl, and he vows to bring the pervert to justice. Then a detective (Ray Liotta) shows up and steals all of Ronnie's imagined thunder. Before long, the film many worried would be yet another Paul Blart morphs into a comedic Taxi Driver, or at least that's what it strives to be.

Brandi becomes a major source of contention among detractors, and for good reason: some truly vile things happen to her, and we're meant to laugh. First, Ronnie forces her into a date by refusing to let her leave the mall until she acquiesces. Then he gets her so drunk that she can't walk, and we cut to Ronnie having sex with an unconscious Brandi, complete with vomit on the pillow. But it's not date-rape, say the filmmakers, because Brandi snaps out of it long enough to ask a slightly concerned Ronnie "Why are you stopping?" I guess it's funny because she's a slut, but Ronnie still had sex with a woman clearly too intoxicated to give any real form of consent.

And that's not the only time Ronnie goes beyond the pale. When he stops taking his medication and, as a result, fails the psychological exam of his application to the police force, the mall guard slips into ultra-violence worthy of a Scorsese movie. He assaults one of the food court operators (Patton Oswalt) for insulting his friend Nell (Collette Wolfe), bound to a wheelchair after ankle surgery. Skateboard punks receive a beating that would make Tommy DeVito flinch. There's even a preposterous and completely unfunny showdown in third act.

Then there's the ending, one of the most graphic and hysterical scenes I've ever watched. I don't like to call things this early in the year, but I seriously doubt I'll see a funnier scene this year than the final chase. Indeed, the film is often quite funny, but at least half of the film is drag. Hill seems to believe that by making Ronnie a psychopath with an alcoholic mother (Celia Weston in a show-stealing role), he has crafted a dark comedy. Not so: he really just made a slapstick with political incorrectness. Sometimes it works, but often -- particularly the date-rape scene -- are just there for shock value and greatly take away from the funny bits.

Nevertheless, the film's got gall, I'll give it that. When it clicks, it's one of the more original comedies in recent memory, so audacious it almost begs you not to laugh. But more often than not it mistakes lulls for atmosphere and development and genuine offensiveness for boundary pushing and satire. So it's a bit of a failure, but a noble one. I still recommend it, if for no other reason than the final ten minutes.

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