My relationship with Hollywood comedy has been shaky at best for the longest time. I’ve long been at odds with public opinion about 70s and 80s comedy “classics” like Caddyshack, Airplane, and Animal House, which all seemed like half-assed unfunny messes to me; and it wasn’t just those three movies either. I was about ready to dismiss film as a strong medium for comedy in favor of standup and television… then a man named Judd Apatow came along. It was with Judd Apatow produced films like The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Superbad that I finally began to laugh at movie theaters again. And it didn’t stop at Mr. Apatow’s work either, a lot of other comedic talents were given the freedom to follow his example and put out like minded films. This seemed to reach its peak last year with the release of such films as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express, Zach and Miri Make a Porno, and to some extents Tropic Thunder which all seemed to be inspired by this wave to some extent. But after all that… I was beginning to think I’d finally had my fill of comedies where people curse a lot and talk bluntly about sex. I skipped a few of these movies like Role Models just because I was getting sick of the formula. Hopefully I’ve had a long enough rest because it appears that the 2009 wave of these movies is being kicked off by the new Seth Rogen vehicle Observe and Report.
The film centers on Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen), a mall security guard with delusions of grandeur. Barnhardt takes his job very seriously and views himself as a real officer of the peace. These delusions are only enhanced by the emergence of a flasher (Randy Gambill) who’s been… flashing… in the mall parking lot. Ronnie views this as a call for him to step up and right a wrong in this world, his reaction to this minor sex-offense is disproportionately violent. Ronnie begins a stalker-ish fixation with one of the flasher’s “victims” (Anna Ferris) for whom Ronnie believes he has a particular responsibility to protect. It soon becomes apparent that Ronnie is not just a mildly delusional loser, but an increasingly dangerous sociopath; he’s been prescribed to take anti-psychotic drugs and he has a rather twisted (but not incestuous) relationship with his mother (who he still lives with).
In case you haven’t noticed, this comedy has a very dark streak to it. In fact this is probably the first comedy ever made to claim Martin Scorsese’s blood soaked masterpiece Taxi Driver as a primary influence, unless you mistakenly categorize Scorsese’s own very good but decidedly un-funny film The King of Comedy as an actual comedy (which it isn’t in spite of the title). In fact the parallels between this and Taxi Driver frequently move beyond conceptual inspiration to the point of being an outright parody. Anna Ferris is in the Cybill Shepherd role, A coffee shop clerk named Nell (Collette Wolfe) is in the Jodie Foster role, her boss (Patton Oswalt) is in the Harvey Keitel role, the movie’s ending is clearly in the same fantasy territory as the final scenes of Scorsese’s film and there’s even a voice-over double take clearly inspired by De Niro’s “listen you fuckers” monologue. The idea of turning this material into a broad comedy is inspired, but the idea is easier said than done and without expert execution this movie was doomed.
Sadly, I’m not sure that director Jody Hill was really quite up to the challenge of bringing his inspired vision to the screen. Hill rose to relative prominence on the strength of his debut film The Foot-Fist Way, a micro budget production that gained a distribution deal after it impressed Will Ferrell and Adam Mckay. I was not as impressed by that movie as that pair of comedic all-stars, but I did see a lot of potential in its star Danny McBride (who has a very small cameo in Observe). I was even more impressed by McBride and Hill’s HBO series “Eastbound and Down,” but again I was more convinced of McBride’s talent than Hill’s mastery of comedic structure by that project.
Finally after seeing this project I think that maybe Hill should stick to writing at this stage, because this movie falls prey to some very inconstant tone that may have been acceptable in another film but which torpedoes the meticulous balancing act this film absolutely needed. The key decision that Hill fails to clearly make is whether the film conveys the perspective of an omniscient observer or whether it’s showing what’s in the head of its disturbed protagonist. If it’s from an omniscient perspective then why are there so many bizarre occurrences? Why is Ronnie able to fight so effectively? And why are his actions placed on a pedestal at certain points? But if it’s from Ronnie’s perspective why does he still seem like a buffoon for much of the film’s running time? Why do we still hear people mock him behind his back? The answer is that the film wants to have its cake and eat it too. If the movie began to be told entirely from Ronnie’s it would have stopped being funny fast, because Ronnie doesn’t see himself as funny. As such the film never really commits to one side or the other in its flawed third act.
This is a real shame because in spite of the film can’t commit to a tone, Seth Rogen unquestionably commits to his role and gives what is easily the best performance of his career. Rogen is hardly the lovable loser here that he is in films like Knocked Up, he’s certainly a loser but he’s hardly lovable. Subverting your normal persona like that is hardly easy, just ask Jim Carrey how well The Cable Guy turned out, but Rogen clearly understands exactly what this film is supposed to be and delivers what’s needed. Reportedly Rogen agreed to star in the film under the sole condition that the studio not screw with the darkness of Hill’s vision. I was beginning to worry about Rogen before this, but now I really think he’s going to have a very long and successful career, he seems to be challenging himself and picking interesting roles rather than coasting on his reputation.
I wish I could say as much for the rest of the cast, but I think a lot of the supporting performances are a bit inconsistent. This is actually the first film I’ve seen Anna Ferris in, she was all right but I can’t say I really see what the fuss is about. Ray Liotta seems to be capitalizing on his usual barking persona, but I’m not sure he does enough to differentiate himself from his straight performances; the jokes seem to be missing whenever he’s on screen. Aziz Ansari gives his all but is limited by dialogue that feels a bit like recycled “fuck you” humor from other Apatow-esque films. Finally, there’s Michael Peña, whose character would probably feel more at home in a Will Ferrell movie than in a dark comedy about a sociopath.
The movie really does have a pretty decent supply of laughs, and if that’s all you need this movie probably is recommendable (assuming the dark tone is right for you). However, I really can’t help being pretty damn disappointed by the whole affair. The concept and performance of a brilliant movie are here and it’s just undermined by some shaky direction the whole way, I just don’t think Jody Hill had the chops to pull this off. I think that in the hads of someone like Terry Zwigoff, Spike Jonze, or David Gordon Green (who lends his usual cinematographer to the project) this could have been brilliant, but without directorial genius to match the genius of its concept I think the film falls apart.
**1/2 out of four