The new Seth Rogen film “Observe and Report” is certainly one of the most repulsive and morally reprehensible films out there right now. And it’s also one of the most creative –due, in large part to its main star. The film, by director Jody Hill, opened last weekend to better-than-expected box office numbers (just over $11 mil.), but it also unleashed a slight controversy about a purported date rape scene. More about that later.
Let’s face it: “Observe” hits you hard over the head in its crude humor, sometime rampant violence, in-your-face crudeness, and this is so not a date movie, nor is it something that little kiddies should be seeing anyways. (Let them enjoy the Disney-scripted wholesomeness of the new Hannah Montana movie.) In short, this is not a movie for the faint at heart, but I do maintain that if you see past the over-the-top humor and beefed-up aggression, it’s actually an inelegant portrait of revved-up American male aggression, circa 2009. The fact that it’s played mostly for laughs –at first farcical, later pitiful—is fitting because no one would actually play all of this straight without having any kind of redemption or closure at the end. The brilliance of Rogen’s performance is that the audience really doesn’t know whether to hate or love his character at the end.
Rogen plays Ronnie Barnhardt, a security patrol officer at the Forest Ridge Shopping Center. He’s in his early 20s, pops meds because he is bipolar, lives with his slattern and drunk Mom (a devastating Celia Weston), and leads a small group of other mall cops in fighting crime inside this suburban shopping center. (This isn’t at all like the “other” mall cop movie back in January; the two films couldn’t be more different from each other.) The crime that suddenly befalls this shopping mall is that there is a middle-aged man flashing shoppers in the parking lot.
He has also targeted the object of Ronnie’s lustful obsession, a cosmetics counter blonde named Brandi, played by Anna Faris. Ronnie is so determined to capture (and mutilate) this flasher and protect Brandi that he distrusts the Conway Police department’s efforts to nab the suspect. He prefers to be a vigilante. He can’t’ wait for his mall cop team to get real guns, instead of those wimpy tasers. He takes target practice with the real thing and always aims for the genitals –you know, where the real power lies and where one is instantly immobilized. His small army of fellow mall cops, or reprobates, a pair of Asian twins (John and Matthew Yuan), and a high-voiced and lisping Dennis (Michael Pena), are his arsenal to combat all the crime and evil in the world. That’s his world. It’s a narrow-minded and crude, and his own sheltered views of it are shocking to be sure.
Ronnie is a genius comic creation. Rogen parks him somewhere between Travis Bickle from “Taxi Driver” and, dare I say it, Oliver Hardy. For starters, just look at the guy. Rogen’s courageous physicality as Ronnie speaks of a lumpy, misshapen guy who, even in an ill-fitting light blue polyester mall cop uniform, seems to spill out uncomfortably, his lumpy body rolling along as he walks up and down the mall. He looks like the average overweight slacker twenty-something male in America today. Even when he “dresses up” for his (in his mind) date with Brandi, what does he pull out? A dark polyester cardigan, slacks and a cheap gold chain around his neck. He’s not trying to impress per se, but this is all he’s got.
And yet Ronnie is by turns hateful and moronic. There isn’t a scintilla of sympathetic feelings in him. Women are objects like Cinnabons, eager to be nailed and incapable of giving him any intelligent advice. Foreigners like “Saddamn”, a mall vendor (played brilliantly by Aziz Ansari), should be destroyed and are instant crime suspects. Ronnie voices a lot of these ideas because, well, that’s all he knows and he isn’t about to cave in to anyone, even when there is a police department that doesn’t want him to take the law into his own hands.I don’t think Hill wants to show Ronnie as a hero. because he isn’t. In his outrageous stupidity, living in his own delusions of grandeur, Ronnie still has the gall and moronic gumption to settle things once and for all, and fight his own war against evil. Has anyone ever told him he couldn’t? Will he listen to the police detective (Ray Liotta) who tells him to stay away? No.
But it’s Ronnie determination, in scenes of both idiotic dumbfoundedness and physical bravery, that ultimately define his drive to live his life both balls to the wall. It’s bad enough that the detective, as a goof, abandons Ronnie is the town’s worst part of town; it’s probably not all that amazing that Ronnie subsequently beats the shit out of several drug dealers who threaten him. No, he didn’t “kill” them (as he claims), but with all that anger trapped inside him, how could these crackheads stand a chance? When Ronnie tries to become a police officer, literally nothing will stand in his way. Seeing him viciously push away other recruits while he cuts through the obstacle course is proof of his drive –it’s stupid but at least he’s driven. His mistake, of course, in the hilarious scene during his psychological evaluation, is to admit that he “took himself off” his bipolar meds and that he loves guns. Did we really think he was going to get away and make it into the police academy?
This beast had to be contained somehow. Try with all your might, hurt others along the way and the system will system will still beat you down. I don’t know if that is the pseudo-message here, but Ronnie is completely taken aback later when the Liotta character informs him that he hasn’t passed his evaluation. He thought he had this all figured out, going away party from the mall job, cake shaped as a gun and all (Thanks, Mom!).
So what about that date rape scene? Critics, I think, have gone a bit overboard here and I suspect it’s because they haven’t seen the whole movie to place that ten-second scene in proper context. It’s not that Ronnie is so intent on pounding Brandi despite her being passed out. What you see is that she is on her back, face turned, dried vomit on the pillow, but when he suddenly stops, it’s her that says “Why are you stopping, motherf*****?!” This is a coitus that’s crude and awkward, but in Ronnie’s world, it’s a real girl that has to medicate herself (with his pills) and drink several margaritas to get herself through this “date” she forgot she had made with this loser.
Beyond this encounter, there is nothing really out of the ordinary about Ronnie’s behavior with women. They’re hot sometimes, but as even he discovers with Brandi later on, they will betray you anyways. Brandi lives only for the moment, trapped in a dead-end job she hates surrounded by “fat women” she puts make-up on, partying hard, and like Ronnie, seems to not know how to focus well, popping his pills in her mouth recklessly. Far from championing any kind of feminist stance, Faris exhibits the lack of self-esteem of aimless party girls –and the movie doesn’t judge her either. She is who she is, take it or leave it.
And so too is Ronnie. You don’t really pity the guy; he is pathetic in the end because of his stupid behavior, which on the face of it make absolute sense to him. He really believes he can take out the Conway police force inside the shopping mall, trapped, isolated and outmanned. And he almost succeeds. He has to, if only to move on to the next moral crusade to root out evil. That he isn’t more self-aware makes sense too; were he more thoughtful he wouldn’t do all the inane things that he does, or even notice that the sweet, “born-again virgin” Nell, the kind but crippled girl who offers him coffee actually likes him. Nope, he is too much of a stupid but pathetic oaf to care.
There is a rawness and simplicity to Ronnie, and Rogen imbues him like no other character in his career. We are far from the amiable slacker/stoner from the clever “Knocked Up”, which was more about the boy than the girl. Not even his (again) stoner character in “Pineapple Express” meets his match here. This character is shorn of Rogen’s unruly curly locks of before, and even if he is self-medicated once again, he seems just as focused and rabidly determined as in the delivery scene in “Knocked Up” when he comes this close to punching out the doctor. The difference is this: in “Observe and Report”, all of Ronnie’s actions are utterly witless but genuine. And if Rogen is representing the dashed hopes in a bleak America of disaffected, assault-rifle crazy, drug-addled youth, then it’s a pretty powerful portrait.