Seth Rogen is fast-becoming a very interesting type of new movie star. Not typically handsome in a matinee idol sense, he does have a loafish aesthetic charm and, when scrubbed up, isn’t too bad to look at. Despite that potential lack of looks, Rogen has formed a position as one of the top names in modern comedy, standing alongside the likes of Will Ferrell and, to an extent, Paul Rudd in having the chops to carry and open a movie while managing often to take over and control scenes and dominate the centre of a film. More than this though is his working ethos. It had seemed his desire had been to make films which entirely explore arrested development of the American male. He’s done this with 40-Year-Old Virgin, with Knocked Up, wrote this with Superbad and Pineapple Express and now, in a movie made entirely around him, has found a darker vein of this subject matter to mine.
It’s testament to his ethos of picking projects that Observe and Report is such a flagrantly provocative and difficult film. I’ll talk a little more about how far it goes later, because really it’s not quite as relentlessly dark as some would have you believe, but this is a film in which the lead character, Rogen’s bi-polar, semi-sociopathic mall cop Ronnie Barnhardt, is the most difficult depiction of arrested development you could imagine Rogen taking on. You could possibly argue that Barnhardt is a working pastiche of those aforementioned characters, someone who doesn’t have the kind of gen-X lacksadaisical attitude to life which, for example, Rogen’s Ben in Knocked Up has. Rather, Barnhardt is desperately seeking a purpose to his life rather than being pushed into it by a relationship or any kind of societal responsibility he may feel.
It’s that search for responsibility and a place in the grand scheme which forms the core of the narrative. Barnhardt essentially sees his opportunity for notoriety and purpose presented by the emergence of a flasher in the parking lot of the mall in which he works. The flasher exposes himself to a number of women, including Anna Faris’ make-up counter girl Brandi, the object of affection for Barnhardt. In a joint effort of his desire to protect her and his want to prove his worth as a security official at the mall, he embarks on a mission to find the pervert, thwarted by the efforts of actual detective Harrison, played in a creepily accurate portrayal of his own persona by Ray Liotta.
From there on in, the film is a series of events in Ronnie’s life which will eventually lead to his acceptance of his place, culminating in an ending to the meat of the plot which is both very funny and quite unexpected. That ending plays well with the rest of the violence seen in the film as director Jody Hill juxtaposes scenes of brutal fighting, primarily involving Barnhardt and often against a number of different opponents, with moments of comedy you would expect to find in Apatow-set films. This tonal shifting doesn’t always work and one scene, in which Rogen squares off with Human Giant’s Aziz Ansari in a lengthy exchange of ‘fuck you’s is funny but out of keeping with the rest of the humour used.
In fact, the humour portion of the film suffers a great deal from a desire by Hill to have characters and situations which associate more closely with high concept than finding humour in the actions, however brutal and difficult to take they may be, of the characters. In example, the entire performance of Michael Pena as Barnhardt’s sidekick is too broad to be in this film, coming across like a grown-up version of Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite. Take that against a scene when, after being told about the verbal abuse being suffered by Colette Wolfe’s sweet coffee girl from her boss (an all-too-brief turn from Patton Oswalt), Rogen’s character does precisely what we’re led to believe he would do and marches into the back of the restaurant to violently attack and threaten both Oswalt’s character and his female cohort. Uncomfortable as it may be, that scene is funny because it rings true to the character Rogen and Hill have drawn. The laughter may be Freudian but it’s not manipulative in the way that Pena’s lisping fool often is.
Though that juxtaposition often suffers, the lengths to which Hill goes on the violence and more difficult parts of the movie are admirable. Not only that, but the actual fight scenes are extremely well-filmed and utterly heinous in execution. The scene in which Barnhardt takes on a group of crack dealers on the street is exhilarating and provides a neat turning point in adding a sense of actual danger to our protagonist. After this, his temper becomes a genuine threat to other characters in the film.
The most infamous sequence since its release however has been the sex scene between Barnhardt and Brandi, described by some as a date rape given the wild intoxication of the female character and the relative straightness of Barnhardt in the lead-up to their coupling. It’s a valid criticism to make but this is one of the points where, in all honestly, Hill shifts back from taking it too far and, as the close of the scene, has Brandi urge her paramour to keep going after he double-takes on her near comatose state. No doubt the scene is not pleasant but I can’t see the argument that it is date rape. I would argue that the scene is another in keeping with the character Hill has built. Barnhardt is bi-polar and misconstrues certain social situations throughout the entire film. While this is a very difficult misconstrument to justify for the character, that is what it is and to argue that is possibly missing the point.
I think however that a more prescient point about the scene is that it’s not very funny. Hill has said about the scene that he thought showing Ronnie having sex with her passed out “would be funnier”. That’s the point at which his decision to include the scene in the movie becomes more difficult to take. The scene itself pulls back from being a true date rape by having her urge his continuance but, while this could give Hill an out, that statement indicates something slightly disturbing about the kind of deliberate provocation he may have been seeking to tap into in the film and, rather than simply criminalise the scene, just provides a further indication that he was never quite sure what kind of film he was making here.
Black comedies, especially the most pitch black, must commit fully to that vein or risk blunting their teeth at the key moments. The date rape scene, as it’s likely to become known for eternity, is in keeping with a truly dark comedy about a serious anti-hero, but this is undermined nearly entirely during the closing scenes of the movie as Barnhardt is granted some sort of redemption and hero status. If Hill had stuck to the half of this film where he truly mined a really dark, difficult vein of humour, he would have created something really interesting. As it is, this is a bit of a hollow sell that has some outstanding moments but bottles it at key moments when it should be at its strongest. The people can complain about the date rape scene all they want but, really, this is just a decent black comedy attempt which defangs itself too easily to truly inspire cult devotion.