Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"Observe and Report": panned and overlooked

To know the work of Jody Hill is to drown with his heroes in the deep end of a pool of delusions.

Hill's debut feature, The Foot Fist Way, which famously attracted the attention and backing of Funny Or Die creators Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, follows a small-town tae kwan do instructor played by the then-unknown Danny McBride. Fred Simmons (McBride) tries to be a role model, successful business man, revered husband, and master of ass-kicking, but generally comes up short. He's a sad case to watch as his life falls apart around him, but in the end he's able to salvage some of his dignity, at least in his own eyes, and look himself in the mirror.

Eastbound and Down, Hill's heralded follow-up six-part series on HBO, details the meteoric rise and bombastic self-destruction of major league pitcher Kenny Powers, also played by McBride. The delusions and personal failings of Fred Simmons pale in comparison to those of Powers. The first season finale, which could have been the series finale, packs a seriously dark punch. Will Ferrell's quote from the end of the trailer for the series (which will start shooting its second season next month) says it all.

Both protagonists are completely lost in their delusions of grandeur, except for a few scant moments of self-actualization that are almost immediately tossed aside. Hill uses the awkward and depressing results as his comedic brush strokes. The satire he creates is potentially off-putting at first, but if viewers can get used to his style, Hill's work is at once hysterical and poignant as viewers will undoubtedly be able to see a little bit of themselves in both Simmons and Powers.

Jody Hill's first major studio film, Observe and Report, had an unfortunate release date - a scant three months after the Kevin James as-a-Segway-riding-mall-cop vehicle, Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

Audiences thought they'd already seen this one-note joke and passed. Critics were, generally, turned off by the viciously dark comedic beats. The film was out of wide release in three weeks, and entirely out of theaters in eight. It grossed a little over $20 million at the domestic box office, quite the paltry return for a film starring Seth Rogen and Ray Liotta that opened on almost 3,000 screens.

What was missed by most moviegoers is a comedy that is as bipolar as its lead character; at once both troublesomely dark and wildly hysterical. I haven't been able to shake it from my mind since first seeing it last December.

Observe and Report follows Ronnie Barnhardt (Rogen), who takes his job as the head of mall security with same degree of seriousness you'd expect from a Secret Service agent. When a flasher begins terrorizing the mall parking lot, Ronnie is ready to rise to the occasion and prove that he is the only person alive capable of bringing the culprit to justice, as well as protecting the only thing worth protecting in the mall, a cold sassy bitch of a makeup counter clerk, Brandi (the always-fabulous Anna Faris).

Barnhardt is deadly serious about catching the flasher, as well as a serial thief, but is as hampered by his self-delusions of prowess as he is by his hapless team, led by Ronnie's partner in crime, Dennis (Michael Pena). His efforts to bring the streaker and robber to justice only impede the actual police investigations being conducted by Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta), and Ronnie convinces himself that he has what it takes to join the big leagues of law enforcement.

Our hero is bipolar - he swings easily between dejected melancholy and explosive violence. Hill easily manipulates this growing tension to his advantage throughout the film to steadily raise the stakes as Ronnie grows more intent on success and more likely to screw up his chances for reaching it. The balancing act that Hill struggles with, though, is balancing the tension and the comedy. It's a lot to ask of his viewers, especially the ones that weren't prepared for the wild emotional pendulum, but for those able to stomach it, Observe and Report delivers some potent laughs.

Take, for example, Faris' second scene of the film, wherein she's traumatized by the streaker. This is perhaps my favorite 40-odd seconds of her career.

Hill is able to create comedy from a situation that you won't find in many films proclaiming to be a comedy.

Likewise, Observe and Report finds humor in painfully awkward situations that Ricky Gervais made mainstream with The Office. Another gem is when Barnhardt ineptly gets dating advice from a girl that is clearly into him (Collette Wolfe).

In all editorial fairness, I should point out part of why I love that scene is I've been this dense more than once in my life.

The humor can be cruel*, but also earnest, which is what makes Observe and Report palatable. Ronnie often does not make good decisions, but for all his faults his heart is more or less in the right place. He represents a darker side of all of us - doomed to be inept, deluded, and not as successful as we imagine we could be, but in the end, Ronnie still wins in his own way.

If you're serious about comedies and contemporary film, I would agree with the AV Talk assertion that although it's imperfect, Observe and Report is required viewing from 2009.

TOO MUCH: Penis. Maybe.

COULD HAVE USED MORE: Bit roles from established comedians; Patton Oswalt, Aziz Ansari, and Dan Bakkedahl all had almost-too-short roles.

FILM SNOB NOTE: Try to find a review of Observe and Report that doesn't mention Taxi Driver. Jody Hill collaborators Ben Best and Danny McBride both enjoy bit roles. A talent for montage that is hinted at in Eastbound and Down is on full display - the two 'training' montages are among the film's highlights. Hill often ends scenes with strong musical underscore abruptly - it could have been interpreted as sloppy filmmaking in The Foot Fist Way, but here it's clear that Hill uses this technique intentionally to jar the viewer. It works. The opening montage to a cover of "When I Paint My Masterpiece" is reminiscent of the line from Man on Fire, "Creasy's art is death - he's about to paint his masterpiece," which is eerily prophetic. I mentioned the "date-rape" scene in my roundup of films from 2009: although certainly unsettling, it's not quite as awful as the minor media uproar made it out to be. It's brief, and it's made clear that Brandi is a willing participant in the proceedings both at the bar and in the bedroom.

IHYFM RATING: FOUR AND A HALF out of FIVE MEHS. Although it's unnecessarily uneven at times, and Ronnie is hard to root for, it's a fascinating character study. A superb cast supports Seth Rogen, who gives the most interesting performance of his mainstream career. It's disturbing, but my oh my, is it funny.

IF YOU SAID THIS WAS YOUR FAVORITE MOVIE, I'D THINK: I will try to stay in your good graces so I don't risk a skateboard to the skull.

*The best example of this: when he asks his alcoholic mother if he's the reason his father left, Ronnie's mom (Celia Weston) stares at her son, and says: "Definitely."

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