An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Saturday, April 11, 2009

First I observed, now I report

I wish I hadn't read anything about Observe and Report before seeing it. If I hadn't encountered the deluge of bemused reactions to the film's dark, Taxi Driver aspirations, I might've been surprised and delighted by its jarring tonal shifts instead of suspicious of them. But for better or worse, I knew going in that Jody Hill's new comedy would be subversive, that it would be weird, that it would be violent, that it would feature a protagonist modeled after Scorsese/DeNiro creations Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin. What I didn't know is how scattershot it would be, how lost-at-sea, especially compared to Hill's much more cohesive and tonally controlled HBO series Eastbound and Down. Alas, Observe and Report is more satisfying in theory than in execution, but its crazed half-vision has an undeniable pull.

Joining the parade of delusional, obsessive grotesques that dominates certain corners of modern comedy (including Hill's previous feature The Foot Fist Way and the aforementioned Eastbound and Down, both starring Southern-fried creep/hero Danny McBride) is Ronnie Barnhardt, head of mall security, bipolar, lonely, angry and convinced of his potential to do great things. The main difference—and it is a welcome one—between McBride's characters and Ronnie is the teddy-bear sweetness of Seth Rogen (giving his "fat years" a hell of a send-off). Rogen makes us care about this messed-up loser even as he descends into violent, psychotic behavior. It's a memorable character, and there's bold commitment to him on both sides of the camera, but the movie surrounding him is an indifferently assembled mishmash of scenes—some funny, some heartbreaking, some disturbing, some that just flat-out don't work. It's not that I'm against a mixture of tones, but there has to be a sense of some purposeful authority behind it all, and you don't really get that here.

The film is not without its triumphs, however. The ending, for one, is a masterstroke of offhanded gear-switching, an unpredictable head-scratcher that has led some to speculate on whether it might in fact be a fantasy in Ronnie's head. The picture is stocked with excellent musical selections, and Hill is quite good at incorporating them, even if he's clearly taking cues from Wes Anderson in that department (a key montage during Ronnie's "date" with would-be paramour Anna Faris is set to the gorgeous ballad "Brain" by obscure '60s mod-rockers The Action). Speaking of Faris, she's the funniest thing in the movie, and I wish she had more screen time; her dead-on caricature of vapid, pretty party-girls will be painfully familiar to anyone who's spent time in a high school recently—or, I suppose, at the makeup counter in the mall. And then there's the excitement of not really knowing where the hell this thing is going, and of the unapologetic (if ineptly directed) weirdness of it all. Ultimately, the movie is rather like Ronnie Barnhardt himself: unbalanced, incompetent, unpredictable, yet somehow coming through it all victoriously. No one is ever going to confuse Jody Hill with Marty Scorsese, but it still makes me happy that somebody tried to make Travis Bickle: Mall Cop—and that the resulting misshapen oddity is playing in actual malls across the country.

No comments:

Post a Comment