Sunday, May 10, 2009

Review - Observe and Report

Plenty of media attention has been focused on Observe and Report's most contentious scene in recent weeks, so let's get it out of the way right at the start. What happens is this: bipolar security guard Ronnie (Seth Rogen) finally persuades beautician Brandi (Anna Faris) to go out to dinner with him, after spending many days at the mall admiring her from afar. Brandi gets through the evening by knocking back shots and downing Ronnie's medication, and she can barely walk by the time he drives her home at the end of the night. Even after she throws up outside her house, Ronnie still gazes at her with the same insatiable desire, and the scene then cuts to her bedroom, where she lies unconscious – with vomit staining her cheek and pillow – while Ronnie pounds away on top of her. Is this rape? That's the question which has been asked most often in relation to Observe and Report, but the issue is clouded by the scene's punchline, when Ronnie pauses to see if Brandi's OK, prompting her to drawl, "Why are you stopping, motherfucker?"

Writer/director Jody Hill uses that line to get him off the hook, but it makes the scene, like so much in Observe and Report, nothing more than an empty provocation. This deeply weird film spends a lot of its time doing things that will get a reaction from the audience, but its relentlessly transgressive approach doesn't actually produce a lot of laughs. This is despite committed performances from a talented comic cast, including Rogen who plays Ronnie with a Travis Bickle-like intensity. He's a deluded obsessive who imagines himself as a hero, and he sees an opportunity to shine when a flasher begins stalking the parking lot. If he can catch the perpetrator before detective Harrison (Ray Liotta), then surely he can win Brandi's heart. He assembles his team, including his lisping Latino sidekick (Michael Peña), and a pair of Chinese twins ("If one of you gets killed, God gave me another one"), but Ronnie is a loose cannon rather than a team player, and watching him slide towards violence and drug-fuelled mania is not much fun at all.

There are flashes of likability in some of the supporting roles. Faris is a superb comic actress, and she deserves a better stage than this (Her brilliant performance in Smiley Face remains unreleased here, while shit like this plays at the multiplexes), and Colette Wolfe is a disarmingly pleasant presence as a disabled Christian barista. But Hill treats all of these characters with the same sneering condescension and contempt, and his desire to shock constantly torpedoes his film's comic potential. The director may claim to be satirising some aspect of American life with his unbalanced, gun-toting hero, or his view of malls as dispiriting, soulless places, but his is a toothless satire, and all Observe and Report leaves us with is a nasty taste in the mouth. It's a comedy without laughs, and a violent odyssey without consequences. As one character states, after eavesdropping on Ronnie's humiliation, "I thought this would be funny, but it's actually kind of sad."