Jody Hill’s Observe and Report is one weird movie. I’m pretty sure this dark comedy is meant to provoke reflection: The title suggests that the movie is holding the mirror up to our reality. In a sense, it is; the worst parts of the movie are the most interesting, and the best parts are pretty bad. Like I said, one weird movie.
The two movies every critic likens Observe and Report to are Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver. The first, because it’s a silly comedy about a mall cop; the second, because it’s a grim story of a troubled man who’s obsessed with an oblivious blonde and suffering from delusions of cleansing a fallen world. Seth Rogen, by far the most interesting thing about the movie, plays Ronnie Barnhardt, the dim-witted, disturbed head of security at Forest Ridge Mall, where a chubby pervert has been flashing women in the parking lot—in particular, Brandi (Anna Faris), Ronnie’s dream girl, a crude, Britney-Spears-like beauty who works at a make-up counter in the mall. The incident fuels Ronnie’s delusions of being a hero. A real cop (well-cast as Ray Liotta) comes in to investigate, and he and Ronnie become rivals. Lots of energy, much of it disturbingly destructive, is expended by Ronnie in service of the mall, but no progress is ever made towards capturing the pervert.
Thematically, the movie is about what it currently means to be an American, and a rough allegory of the George W. Bush years is discernible behind the drama. (The pervert is a kind of terrorist.) There is a mall salesman by the name of Saddam who’s a thorn in Ronnie’s side, and who’s unfairly accused of being the flasher. Ronnie at one point talks about the necessity of using “black ops” and putting the rules aside to pursue and capture the villain. The attempt to apprehend the villain leads to all sorts of unnecessary violence — meanwhile, one of the mall cops is looting the treasury. The whole point of the violence is ostensibly to protect consumerist culture. Ronnie is an idiot who goes on his gut instincts and sees the world in overly simplistic good-versus-evil terms. You get the picture.
Comedies have the right to simplify in order to amplify. My complaint is that there’s a spiritual deficiency in the satire, which is a large part of why this movie is so bizarre. Let me use one scene as an example. In the middle of the movie, Ronnie manipulates Brandi into going on a date with him. She ends up getting completely hammered, and as he moves in for a kiss on her doorstep, vomit bubbles out of her mouth. He wipes it away and kisses her anyway.
While everyone in the theater is still chuckling at this gross display, the movie cuts to Ronnie having sex with a passed-out Brandi. All of a sudden, we’re witnessing a date rape. The laughter in the theater chokes — suddenly Ronnie pauses and notices that Brandi is completely passed out, and just then she miraculously regains enough consciousness to say, “Don’t stop, motherfucker.” Then everyone laughs a little again, this time without any spirit, simply to let off steam: It’s not a rape, after all. There are several scenes that follow a similar comedic arc, including the finale. In fact, the whole movie follows it. It’s like we’re being told, “See, you think this is funny, but this has real consequences; you’re implicated in violence much worse than you admit to yourself; wake up and face the crassness and brutality of your existence…Just kidding, it’s all good.”
It’s the preachiness between laughs that puts me off. I’m happy to drift off into the narcotic haze of a funny story. I’m even happy to have my humor subverted into wisdom. But if we head down the road of knowledge, we have to go further than a facile allegory and a shrug that everything is OK after all. The jumpy quality of the humor—like someone had poured a bottle of water into my gas tank—jolted me out of the comedy and got me to reflect on how simplistic and even condescending the movie is. I walked out thinking, I really do want someone to observe and report on who we are and how we live.
There are a few moments of awkward tenderness between Ronnie and his mom, or between Ronnie and a woman who gives him free coffee — these moments come closest to the reality I’m hungering for, but they are, in fact, the lamest things in the movie: sentimentalism of a fairly low variety. The “it’s all good” that Jody Hill, the writer and director, says to us at the end of the uncomfortable laughs is very cynical. He is observing and reporting that we can’t take a real report on our condition. “Humankind can’t bear very much reality,” according to a famous report by T.S. Eliot. He’s probably right, but the real hero this world needs is one who can give us more than we’re getting.