“Now I see this clearly. My whole life has pointed in one direction. There never has been any choice for me.” —Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver
There a scene early on in Jody Hill’s Observe And Report where Brandi, a make-up counter floozy—we never see her signature, but there’s an implied heart over the “i”—has just encountered the flasher who’s been terrorizing the mall parking lot. As a small scrum of co-workers gather to comfort her, in dashes Ronnie Barnhardt, the cropped head of mall security, flanked by the rent-a-cop flunkies who revere him like General Patton. Brandi is the girl of his dreams, and here is the damsel-in-distress moment when his strength and authority can finally win her over. (As he later confesses to his alcoholic mother, “Part of me thinks this disgusting pervert is the best thing that ever happened to me.”) Ronnie orders his men to establish a perimeter, which is what people do on cop shows, and out come the orange cones, forming a half-circle around her.
It’s the sort of quirky gesture that’s common to independent films, specifically the films of Wes Anderson, who has an abiding interest in romantic fantasists. In another context, Ronnie ordering his underlings to establish a perimeter around his would-be paramour could be Max Fischer in Rushmore, pitching woo to Olivia Williams’ equally unattainable teacher. Ronnie and Max both like to play pretend, both attract followers who consider them visionaries, and both harbor delusions powerful enough to take root in the world around them. The difference is that Max Fischer’s delusions are mostly harmless, bruising only in the way his self-involvement walls out the people closest to him. (He’s a teenager, in other words.) Ronnie Barnhardt is psychotic.
Whether Hill intended Observe And Report as a meta-commentary on indie quirk or a curdled example of same isn’t clear, but it’s astonishing to consider that a comedy this dark, with a hero this deranged, was released to more than 2,700 screens across America. Audiences expecting another Paul Blart: Mall Cop, with plump funnyman Seth Rogen in the Kevin James role, instead got a suburban reworking of Taxi Driver, with Rogen as God’s lonely man. Like Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle, Ronnie channels his alienation and thwarted desire into the delusional belief that he is a man of destiny, someone who will finally stand up and wipe all the scum off the street. Only here, the street is the Forest Ridge Mall, the scum is a middle-aged flasher and a few skate punks, and the joke is the club-fisted justice of a bipolar security guard off his meds. In the end, his “hero” status, like Bickle’s, is entirely ironic.
Though not far removed from Danny McBride’s strip-mall sensei in Hill’s previous film, The Foot Fist Way, Rogen plays a more disturbing creature, because there’s nothing particularly ingratiating or cute about his delusions. In casting Rogen, Hill taps into the latent ugliness that has always lurked behind the actor’s affable stoner/slacker persona: The callousness and hostility that occasionally bubbled to the surface in comedies like Knocked Up and Zack And Miri Make A Porno becomes the focus here. And Rogen, who’s consistently underestimated as an actor—Adam Sandler hogged the attention for his self-deprecating, semi-autobiographical turn in Funny People, but it’s Rogen’s insecurities as his protégé/lackey that strike a chord—plays Ronnie as a hostile dimwit and unwitting fascist who nonetheless cares about the law and has that weirdly infectious Max Fischer vision. What’s unsettling about Observe And Report is that viewers are torn between engaging with the fantasies of Rogen’s underdog hero and being repulsed by the consequences of his pathetic, unhinged desperation. The film creates a strange and toxic alchemy—and it doesn’t always have control of it, either.
The Cybill Shepherd in this scenario is Anna Faris’ Brandi, another nasty little beast whom Ronnie nonetheless sees in an entirely different light. Travis idealizes Shepherd’s blonde goddess from the distance of a cab window, and when he finally has a chance to relate to her on a human level, he never adjusts his preconceptions—she’s this perfect, untouchable thing, and nothing she says or does will convince him otherwise. For her part, Brandi is much more obviously not perfect: She’s a vain, selfish, boozing, promiscuous ditz, and when she’s at her absolute worst, Ronnie receives her every word as eagerly as a chocolate kiss. On their first date—which he earns out of constant badgering and she nearly misses for a night of drunken carousing—Ronnie, in his mothballed dating clothes (cardigan sweater, burgundy turtleneck, gold necklace, black slacks with zipper pockets), listens to her crass ramblings with stars in his eyes.
The date ends in the most controversial scene in Observe And Report, where Hill cuts from a barely conscious Brandi, loaded on tequila and his antidepressants, throwing up on the lawn (“I accept you,” says Ronnie with a kiss) to Ronnie grinding on top of a passed-out Brandi in her bedroom. Hill doesn’t hold for long before getting to the punchline, when Ronnie pauses to consider her state, only to have her scream, “Why are you stopping, motherfucker?” This got by far the biggest laugh of any line in the preview screening I attended, but the scene struck such a raw nerve in the culture, which was collectively disinclined to give this sour little movie the benefit of the doubt. Did we just laugh at date rape? Quite possibly. But that’s not the relevant question. A more relevant question is: How does the scene fit into a dark comedy that features a deranged rent-a-cop as its ostensible hero and surrounds him with grotesque cartoons? And the answer to that becomes “Quite snugly.” Critics made the mistake of removing that scene from the context of Observe And Report as a whole, forgetting that Hill deliberately tries to alienate the audience and see what laughs can develop on other side of good taste.
That said, Observe And Report doesn’t have the firmest handle over what it’s putting out there. It may be conceived as the comedic flipside to Taxi Driver, but despite several masterful sequences—on a technical level, the film vastly improves on The Foot Fist Way—Hill has a sensibility more aligned with the devil-may-care recklessness of Tom Green’s Freddy Got Fingered than a Martin Scorsese production. Part of the excitement and discomfort of watching Observe And Report is that we never know quite how Hill feels about Ronnie: He presents him as hopelessly deluded and dangerous while indulging his fantasies to such an extent that the film turns into a bizarre sort of wish-fulfillment. Pushing the envelope occasionally seems like an end in itself, and the film could have used some of Ronnie’s clear sense of purpose.
Having Taxi Driver serve as the guardrails helps wrangle the film’s excesses, though, because Hill respects Ronnie’s “righteous” path enough to follow through. The Jodie Foster type in this scenario—the “born-again virgin” (Collette Wolfe) who supplies Ronnie with free coffee—provides an innocent counterbalance to Brandi’s foul brazenness, and she keeps the embers of our sympathy for him alive. (Patton Oswalt plays the Harvey Keitel role as Wolfe’s vicious manager at the food court, and gets his head pounded against an oven for it.) Ronnie’s right-hand-man (Michael Peña) takes him briefly off course into a heroin and robbery binge, but that unfortunate lapse in judgment serves to harden his resolve. He alone determines that “the world needs another hero,” and he doesn’t care about what that heroic opportunity is any more than Travis Bickle cares whether he kills the politician or the pimp. Those moral distinctions are for society to sort out—he just needs to kick some ass.
Though I gave Observe And Report a mixed-to-positive review at the time, it was all we could talk about for the week or two after it screened, and its audacity continues to stick to the ribs. Disturbing and brilliant as it is for drawing the audience into Bickle’s head, a film like Taxi Driver still exists safely within the realm of serious drama. Channeling those same twisted impulses through a studio comedy like Observe And Report takes either tremendous courage or a spectacular obliviousness to commercial expectation. And it’s in this godforsaken no-man’s-land where cult movies frequently reside.
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