Observe and Report

In Toronto, there’s a special monthly event at the Toronto Underground Cinema called Defending the Indefensible. The program is made up of critically panned films that failed to ignite the public’s interest (movies like Freddy got Fingered and MacGruber). One person makes a case for why the film has overlooked merits that deem it to be worthwhile, while another attacks the defender’s position and points out all the reasons why the film is a flop and why audiences should stay away. Observe and Report is one of the “indefensible” films that made the cut. And it’s actually not that bad.

Expectations really set the reaction to a film. That’s why all the marketing force behind promoting a movie – the trailers, press conferences, interviews – really have to get the tone of the movie right for it to be a success. Because the one thing everyone can agree on is that we hate paying money to see a “comedy” that turns out to be a dark drama with light scenes sparsely sprinkled throughout. That’s what I’d say happened with Observe and Report.

It looks kinda fun, right? It’s got Seth Rogen, that funny comedian from movies like Knocked Up and The 40-Year Old Virgin. There’s Anna Faris – the girl from Scary Movie – puking on a lawn and drinking too much! This is going to be fun-nee. That’s the problem.

The Seth Rogen we get in this movie skews more closely to his dramatic turn as a threatening bully in Donnie Darko rather than the cuddly, harmless pot smoker of Judd Apatow comedies. He’s an unhinged beast in this movie but the trailer doesn’t show any of that. It makes it seem like Rogen is on the joke – especially in that last clip when he pretends to shoot the therapist with pistols and then with a shotgun. He even smiles and says “I’m just kidding” afterward, but the joke’s on us.

The trailer omits the entire speech that comes before the playful fake shooting moment. Rogen’s character, Ronnie Barnhardt, is trying to pass his psychological evaluation to become a police officer. He confides to the therapist that he has a recurring dream where he saves a person after blowing all the bad guys away with a shotgun and the grateful people bow at his feet and thank him for his heroic deed. It’s scary. What would be a joke in a comedy – with Rogen looking at the camera, winking and saying “I’m just kidding” – becomes something more sinister when you realize his character is being completely serious. Observe and Report is Rogen’s finest acting moment.

Expecting this movie to be a comedy would make it a complete disappointment. I don’t think I laughed once – and the moments that were supposed to be comedic just felt misplaced and shoe-horned in. However, watching it as a drama you can appreciate what Observe and Report is trying to do. It’s still a deeply flawed movie, but it’s not as meaningless or horrible as everyone makes it out to be (unless wanton violence and a controversial sex sequence is your definition of horrible – then it is).

The rest of this review is just going to focus on Ronnie Barnhardt – because the story of this movie isn’t really that important. Ronnie has nothing. He’s a mall cop (“not a real cop” – Ray Liotta’s Detective Harrison would grumble), he lives with his alcoholic mother, he doesn’t have a girlfriend, he’s bi-polar, and the only perk of the job is getting free coffee from the bagel shop in the food court.  It’s a depressing existence, and the only way Ronnie can cope is deluding himself into believing that his job holds some importance to the world. He’s the line that separates the light from the darkness and the bemused snickers and condescension of  the mall employees and shoppers has to pushed aside. If he starts believing them, what else does he have?

Delusion has always been an interesting concept to me. We decide who is “deluded” based on arbitrary definitions of what it means to be normal. The best movie (I think) that touched on this is Don Juan DeMarco with Johnny Depp and Marlon Brando. In that film, Depp is the “deluded” one – believing himself to be the legendary lover Don Juan – and Brando is the “normal” therapist trying to bring him back to reality. Thing is, the “normal” therapist’s life sucks. He and his wife are like strangers and his days are filled with monotony. Once he starts treating Depp however, he becomes inspired by the young man’s zest for life (who cares if he thinks he’s Don Juan – it’s not hurting anybody) and as Brando becomes more involved in his world, the better his life becomes. Why the non-harmful delusion needs to be cured is because other “normal” characters can’t accept that a person who acts strangely actually enjoys life more than they do. It’s not fair for some people to live in a rosy world of make-believe; they have to endure life in the cold, hard world of reality to be considered “normal.” In Ronnie’s case, if he wasn’t deluded he’d probably be dead.

Ronnie has only two chances of redemption: he either becomes a real cop or he catches the serial flasher who has been sexually harassing shoppers in the mall. The only thing that keeps getting in the way is himself. I may be in the minority (a lot of message boards and reviews of the film comment on the unpleasantness and loathsome nature of Ronnie) but I actually was rooting for him to succeed. I wanted him to be given a chance because he deserves it. He’s stupid, impulsive, and often arrogant but that doesn’t mean he’s undeserving of happiness. I viewed the unpleasant aspects of his character to be his protective shell against his disappointment with himself and the world (another Jody Hill character – Kenny Powers – also acts like this but still remains lovable). Just give Ronnie one little success. He needs a win.

Observe and Report turns the familiar comedic character Rogen plays – impulsive man-child, borderline psychopath – into a darker and depressing version of what that person could be like in the world (imagine Ben Stone from Knocked Up if his money ran dry, http://www.fleshofthestars.com fell apart, his friends drifted away and he didn’t meet Katherine Heigl – he’d probably be something like Ronnie).

What makes this film so critically and commercially panned is that it was marketed as the slightly more risque version of Paul Blart: Mall Cop. People went in looking to laugh at the antics of an immature mall cop and were shocked by a movie that didn’t ask them to laugh at him, but actually sympathize with him.

You can love the film, or you can hate it. The one thing you can’t do is have no reaction to it.

Note: The most telling scene in the film is when Ray Liotta’s character gleefully tells Ronnie that he won’t be able to become a police officer. One of Liotta’s detective buddies hides in the office closet thinking that it’s going to be a great joke, but he isn’t laughing when Ronnie is crestfallen that he’s failed. The detective opens the closet door and says “I’m sorry, but I thought this was going to be funny. But this is just depressing.” He’s the surrogate for the audience who similarly believed this was going to be a comedy.

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One Response to Observe and Report

  1. Julia Turnbull says:

    You are truly a deep thinker. Your posts are so intellectually stimulating.

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