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We Failed This Film: Jody Hill’s ‘Observe and Report’ (2009)

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We Failed This Film is a series about underrated films that simply didn’t receive the love they deserved upon initial release. For the 21st entry, we’re suiting up and heading to the mall for Jody Hill’s supremely dark and hilarious comedy ‘Observe and Report’.

How We Failed It

In 2009, Jody Hill and Danny McBride debuted their HBO comedy series Eastbound & Down. It’s become one of my all-time favorite shows in history, and it’s what Hill is perhaps most well-known for. In that same year, though, Hill debuted his second feature film, Observe and Report, and was looking to break out with a marketable star with Seth Rogen as the lead. However, what should have marked Hill as the new great voice in comedy just left him in the footnotes. Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) is a mall cop — sorry, head of mall security — and has just stumbled on the case that may be his crowning achievement. There’s a pervert flashing women, most notably Brandi (Anna Faris), the cosmetics worker that Ronnie has a crush on. Getting in his way is suave Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta), so Ronnie enlists the help of fellow mall cop staffers.

Observe and Report did okay business at the box office, just breaking even. Through only an $18 million budget, the film scored $24 million domestically with a meager foreign release pushing it to $26 million worldwide. It’s not a bad return, but it’s not enough to have made an impact on memories and the box office. One of the big problems for Observe and Report was significant market saturation. Through some cruel cosmic happening, the film was not the only mall cop movie to come out around that time. Paul Blart: Mall Cop had just been released three months prior and had made a killing, raking in $183 million worldwide through a $26 million budget. There are different reasons that Paul Blart did so much better than Observe and Report, most significantly it opened itself up to a family audience who could take their kids, and also because some moviegoers are stupid. Whatever market there was for a mall cop comedy, Paul Blart had already monopolized it by the time Observe and Report was released.

The film was also severely mis-marketed. Trailers banked heavily on Rogen’s raunchy humor cred, highlighting only these aspects of the film and ultimately making Observe and Report look like any other slapped-together effort of a studio comedy, ignoring Hill’s balance of drama/comedy and compelling character study. This came just after the premiere of Eastbound & Down too, so Hill’s brand of comedy hadn’t become recognizable enough for marketers to put his name on a poster or trailer and have that make a difference. Hill’s only previous film was the similarly underseen and incredibly hilarious The Foot Fist Way, so only a small sample of people would see Observe and Report based on his reputation.

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Critics were far from sold on the film, delivering middling reactions at best. Manohla Dargis tore into Observe and Report, writing “Mr. Hill says his movie was inspired by Taxi Driver, a self-flattering comparison. Like those of Travis Bickle, Ronnie’s delusions of grandeur do end in a paroxysm of blood. Yet while Martin Scorsese might be overly fond of screen violence, part of what makes that film profound and memorable is how the thrill of violence, its seduction, is always in play with a palpable moral revulsion. No such dialectic informs Observe and Report, which exploits Ronnie and his brutality for laughs. This lack of critique might make the movie seem daring. But it’s hard to see what is so bold about a film that, much like the world outside the theater, turns the pain and humiliation of other people into a consumable spectacle.”

Peter Bradshaw chimed along: “For Seth Rogen fans like me, this charmless, heavy-handed and cynical comedy is an uncomfortable experience. Rogen plays Ronnie Barnhardt, a sad-sack loser who is a security guard in a shopping mall. In this, he of course resembles Kevin James’s similar deluded jerk in Paul Blart: Mall Cop. But where Blart was supposed to be basically pretty nice, Ronnie is a nasty piece of work with a bi-polar condition, who uses his meds to effect what is almost – but not quite – a drug rape on the mall’s similarly unpleasant cosmetics salesperson, played by Anna Faris. (The movie makes a careful point of showing her semi-conscious and fully willing.) Again and again, you almost laugh at something that is almost good, and then there is a clumsy and misjudged moment of crassness. I’m all for bad taste and black comedy and grossout. But it has to be funny.”

Perhaps the only praise Observe and Report got was from Quentin Tarantino, who included the film among his favorites of the year. Seven years later, Observe and Report is still a hilarious, scathing and ultimately empathetic character study of a fractured ego and a troubled mind in distress.

Why It’s Great

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Hill has a unique gift for crafting characters who are xenophobic in every possible instance, exist to self-congratulate and are as selfish as can be — yet he still manages to get viewers to root for and identify with these characters almost effortlessly. Ronnie Barnhardt, Eastbound & Down’s Kenny Powers and Fred Simmons (of The Foot Fist Way) are all of the same DNA, men who have ultimately detestable traits, yet are human enough for us to see ourselves in them and root for them. This is a lot harder than it looks, riding a line between love and hate for your protagonist. Hill manages it because he has just as much empathy as he does contempt for his characters. Yes, Ronnie and Kenny are kind of horrible people, but they’re also just people trying to make it in this world. Hill is a student of fractured egos and middle class dreams, and Observe and Report is another terrific example of that.

Hill approaches the subject of mental illness with more honesty and understanding than most dramas do. Ronnie suffers from bi-polar disorder, and as funny as it is to watch him drench himself in his ego, it’s crushing to watch his disorder ruin his chances of becoming a real cop. There’s a passage in the film where he decides his life is good enough to stop taking medicine, and it’s heartbreaking to watch him accept that he has to go back on the medication.

The biggest controversy surrounding the film revolves around one scene. After a date where Brandi has taken pills and drank heavily, she vomits. Ronnie kisses her regardless, and the two have sex. As Brandi seems to have passed out, Ronnie stops and asks if she’s awake. She tells him to keep going. I won’t defend the scene, because I’m certain that Hill finds nothing defendable in that scene. You’re supposed to watch it and recoil. It’s an ugly scene and delivered as such. Jim Emerson compiled a well-rounded piece on the differing viewpoints and arrived at the sage conclusion that “The humor, Morgan says, is rooted in that very uncertainty, the queasy feeling of not knowing if you should laugh… and the prospect of maybe feeling even queasier if you do. She knows many people will absolutely hate the soul-sucking ugliness on display. But she relishes the perversity, which she considers more shocking than, say, (and I admire the following examples) that junkie epic Trainspotting, and a lot more subversive than anything Michael Haneke hatches up. Because Observe and Report isn’t playing at your local art house. No, it’s playing right in the belly of the beast: at the mall.”

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The cast is exceptional. Rogen delves into depths of darkness and sincerity typically not associated with him. The same schlubby, lovable character that he often plays is there, but underneath that familiarity and safety, there’s a fractured ego, a soul in distress and a man looking for a purpose. It proved that Rogen was capable of more than being laughed at or with, as he could also captivate and investigate the peripheries of a role. Michael Peña is nothing short of a comedic genius in this film. He adopts a lisp and a high-pitched voice that soaks each line of dialogue in hilarity. Normally this would be a cheap gimmick at laughs, but in Peña’s hands, lines like “Ronnie, could you please remove the dick from your face?” and “How’s your dick hanging, player? Low, I hope” seem like comedic Shakespeare. Ray Liotta is in his element as a man with a short fuse. Anna Faris is enjoyably over-the-top in her caricatured portrayal of Brandi, and Collette Wolfe is a warm presence in this cynical world. A pre-fame Jesse Plemons is great as a young mall cop recruit, and Aziz Ansari has some great bits yelling at Ronnie. Danny McBride also has a quick cameo, and I’m helpless against him yelling insults and profanity.

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Scorsese’s influence is not only felt in the construction of Ronnie’s character, but also in the way that Hill shoots the film. He utilizes slow motion in ways that allow the audience to get inside the grandiose self-defined heroism that Ronnie convinces himself of,  with these shots revealing the heightened existence that Ronnie has created for himself. Hill also utilizes long takes and tracking shots with a similar fervor and sense of purpose that Scorsese pioneered. One highlight is a sequence where Ronnie fights off a bunch of cops, with Hill tracking the sequence that reminds of the superb one-take sequence in Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy. It’s a rare feeling of visual auteurism in studio comedies. There are also shocking bits of violence that explode onto the screen from time to time, each of them equally hilarious in their shock and sobering in their darkness. The result is a film that is bizarrely unique, a strange blend of vulgar humor and dark human drama. Nobody can quite nail this balancing act of a tone like Hill can. The final split second shots of the film, in a wonderful nod to Goodfellas and Taxi Driver, are proof of something far more dangerous than one might have originally anticipated. Similar to Taxi Driver, Hill reminds that happy endings don’t cure the protagonist’s illnesses. They are only a temporary release, and there is little comfort in that release.

Dylan Moses Griffin (@DMosesGriffin) has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.

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