Thursday, May 14, 2009

How much did Arthur get paid to kill Merlin?

The work of director Jody Hill is a much-needed slap in the face to every half-assed comedy that promises "shock humor" while exploiting cultural stereotypes in the most safe, obvious way possible. In the low-budget martial arts comedy The Foot Fist Way and the HBO series Eastbound and Down, Hill and frequent collaborators Ben Best and Danny McBride skewer the regressive, hypermasculine attitudes that other comedies hold up as an ideal. Tae Kwon Do instructor Fred Simmons and burnt-out ace pitcher Kenny Powers (both played by McBride), in addition to being extremely funny, implicitly expose the narcissism and desparation of our Dane Cooks, Van Wilders and Blue Collar Comedy Tours. Observe and Report, Hill's first solo effort as a writer/director, has been condemned to live in the shadow of Paul Blart: Mall Cop; this is a shame because it's much funnier (in fact, it's one of the funniest movies of all time), but also because it, in its twisted way, it eviscerates the banal, soulless mall culture that Blart celebrates. It's the blackest, most subversive comedy to sneak through the studio system since Fight Club, and in the rare moments when I wasn't laughing, I was grinning from ear to ear at the thought that Hill got away with it.

Hill has stated the idea for Observe and Report began with "Taxi Driver as a comedy," and it's astonishing how fully he's followed through with the implications of that premise. His Travis is mall security guard Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen), a mentally unstable schlub who takes his job extremely seriously. When a serial flasher (Randy Gambill) starts to prowl the mall parking lot, Ronnie becomes convinced that catching the pervert will prove himself superior to the detective (Ray Liotta) assigned to the case and win the affections of Brandi (Anna Faris), his dream girl, who works at a cosmetics counter. At first Ronnie seems like an affable variation on Seth Rogen's stoner-dude persona, but we quickly learn that Ronnie's macho self-delusions mask very real problems - his bipolar disorder, coupled with his extremely dysfunctional relationship with his alcoholic mom (Celia Weston), have made Ronnie a ticking time bomb who sublimates his violent impulses into his work. For Ronnie, who can't pass the psych exam to become a cop, guarding the mall and particularly Brandi are a way of fighting his own demons - it's the movie's great unspoken joke that Ronnie is able to correctly predict that the flasher will target Brandi because, under different circumstances, he'd do the same.

This is pitch-black material for a comedy, made darker by Hill's ability to mine laughs from the sad reality of Ronnie's life, and Rogen deserves a world of credit, when he could be coasting on the aforementioned stoner-dude persona, for playing an almost completely unlikable character. When a Middle Eastern kiosk worker (Aziz Ansari) being interrogated by Ronnie accuses him of racism, Ronnie responds that "It's not racism - you fit the profile," and the sad, hilarious thing is that Ronnie believes this. Ronnie, in his psychically vulnerable state, has completely bought into the reactionary, ultra-conservative concept of heroism; the irony is that, in the consumerist void he protects, he's actually the most likeable character because he at least believes in something. Brandi, the object of his affections, is the embodiment of everything ugly about mall culture - she's stupid, self-absorbed, mean and oblivious to the world around her - and Faris demonstrates again that she's the most talented actress around at playing idiots. A montage, during Brandi and Ronnie's hilariously painful date, of Brandi doing about a dozen shots (Faris punctuates each with pitch-perfect deliveries of Brandi making observations like "It burns so good") plays like Hill couldn't decide which of Faris' takes to use and instead decided to use them all. The joke of the sort-of date-rape scene that has some humorless people up in arms is that for Ronnie, a few minutes of thrusting into an indifferent, barely-conscious Brandi is the closest thing to romance he's ever experienced. As with last year's Burn After Reading, one can read the characters' respective self-delusion and narcissism as the root of all evils today - I don't know if Hill intended for Observe and Report to shoulder a sociopolitical reading, but it does give frightening credibility to Ronnie's fellow security guard Dennis (Michael Peña), who explains after a day-long drug binge that everything is meaningless.

And yet the brilliance of Observe and Report is that, unlike the "everyone is stupid but us" humor of South Park (still a great show) and Family Guy (definitely not), it doesn't exempt itself or its audience from its scrutiny. When Ronnie single-handedly beats the snot out of several gang members in a scene that may or may not be a delusion (and uncannily recalls a similar scene in Watchmen), the moment is exhilarating even though the violence is painfully real. And when he brutalizes a Cinnabon manager (Patton Oswalt) to defend the honor of kind, Jesus-loving barista Nell (Collette Wolfe), I found myself initially cheering Ronnie's actions before laughing at my own horrifying approval of his violent chivalry. By the time Ronnie finds himself in a prolonged Oldboy homage set to Queen's score for Flash Gordon, I no longer knew what was real or what only existed in Ronnie's head, but I found myself sort of rooting for him all the same. I'm not certain whether Observe and Report is aesthetically or morally defensible; all I know is, when the flasher plotline reaches its climax, I haven't laughed as hard since Walter Sobchak decided to teach little Larry Sellars a lesson.


Jenny said...

Eh,I kinda agree with the feministing blog: even if Faris' character did "Want it" it was still rape. Date rape ain't funny.

Andrew Bemis said...

The thing is, nobody could possible watch that scene and get the idea that date rape is at all cool or okay. The humor comes from the complete ugliness of both characters.

Plus, when the author of that video held up Wanda Sykes as an example of envelope-pushing humor, her judgements on what is and isn't funny lost all credibility.

Jenny said...

Okay, my apologies perhaps I should've clarified why some were annoyed:

1) It was the way the trailer showed the clip to make it seem like a light hearted romp

2) Rogen and Faris sorta skrited around the question of whether or not the act was rape as seen here:

Regarding Wanda sykes, isn't comedy subjective? I think she's kinda cool...

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