20 April 2009

the exceptionally late-to-the-party-movie-review presents: observing and reporting

Most everyone that knows me has heard my rant about "committing to the joke" before, particularly if we've worked together in some sort of filmic capacity. If you've not had the pleasure before, it goes something like this: commitment to "the joke" (which is kind of an overall thematic concept, one that shines through in specific moments of the film), is, for my money, the most important element of any comedy. Your production value can be shit, your acting can be subpar, your script can be all but incoherent, but if you commit yourself to "the joke," with no reservations, I'll be on your side forever (mostly).

This is more difficult than it might seem at first grok (though, naturally, the difficulty level is fluid, depending on the nature of "the joke"). If you want an example of a movie that doesn't commit to the joke well, I'll give you Tropic Thunder (or any Ben Stiller movie, really. Except maybe Dodgeball). The "red band" trailer was fully committed to the skewering of everything its stars had ever accomplished, and the masturbatory nature of event films in general (though, I must agree with my friend that said Tug Speedman would've been better served as played by a legitimately washed-up action star, and not Ben Stiller. Some of the self-reflexivity was gone, right there). It was a far better experience than the film itself, whose commitment to "the joke" wavered in the second half, and was completely repudiatedby the end, as RDJ all but apologized to the camera for his blackface performance.

Robert Downey, Jr.'s performance as Kirk Lazarus/Sgt. Lincoln Osiris was [obviously] the most extreme of the lampooning choices the movue made (not to discount Tom Cruise's career-saving turn as producer extraordinaire Les Grossman), but what's important to note about it is that it's a great performance. It had to be; he could not have wavered for an instant if he wanted to be believable as a man who had his skin dyed so that he could play a black man, an actor who doesn't break character until the DVD commentary. He pulls it off until the very end, when he (predictably - this is a Ben Stiller movie. He doesn't make the money he makes by making truly edgy, bizarre comedies - he knows how to play it safe) takes off his afro wig and screams to the heavens about how he knows he's not really a black man. When the movie doesn't respect its jokes enough to commit to them, that's when it loses me, and Tropic Thunder lost me but good in that instant.

The problem with a full-throated commitment to "the joke" is that, in the case of movies that really require it, such a commitment is probably going to consign you to "cult movie" nights on TCM, or at the very least, box office oblivion (not so much in the case of Borat, but there were other factors at play there beyond Mr. Baron Cohen's total commitment to his joke). It's like RDJ.'s speech about how you never go "full retard" in Tropic Thunder, like Stiller knew the movie was going to take back every powerful statement it'd made in the last 10 minutes, and wanted us to prepare for it.

The reason I've spent so much time on a movie that I don't much like and that doesn't even really matter is so that you understand me when I say that Observe and Report commits to the joke as well as any movie I've ever seen, and that it will forever have a place in my heart because of that. Its conviction does not waver for an instant, it doesn't take a step back to make you more comfortable, ever, and there is absolutely no way that any moment of the film ever takes place inside the fantasy realm that exists between Head of Mall Security Ronnie Barnhardt's ears (but more on that later).

[ASIDE: It's worth making the somewhat tired point that it's tough to imagine a much worse time for Observe and Report to get released to theaters. Between the [depressing] success that the Kevin James "vehicle" Paul Blart: Mall Cop already experienced (it's like the Capote to OaR's Infamous...), the Seth Rogen overexposure (I certainly enjoy watching him in films - even the movies I don't find all that compelling, like Pineapple Express), the ubiquitous "economic downturn" that's giving everyone cause to pinch pennies everywhere they can (and for a movie with a marketing campaign as lackluster as Observe and Report, that's not even remotely exciting), and a time of year that I could probably best describe as the calm before the shitstorm, I wouldn't have a whole lot of hope for this film to make a lot of waves at the box office, were I a person whose life was defined by such things. END ASIDE].

The "lovable loser whose reach exceeds his grasp" is a template for a main character so familiar that it borders on the obnoxious. How many times have we been introduced to a guy (sometimes a lady, but not as often) who yearns for something more than his menial station in life, who knows that, given the proper opportunity, he could rise up, phoenix-from-the-ashes style, and turn everything around in the most delightful way, only to see his hopes and dreams crash around him as we laugh ourselves silly (and he finally manages to realize how good he had it in the first place)? The answer is probably, "too many," but the important thing here is that Observe and Report turns that needlessly overdescribed trope and flips it with such dedication that it finally becomes something worth watching.

Now, in the above paragraph, I pretty much outlined for you the arc of OaR's story, except for one crucial omission: Ronnie Barnhardt's reach does not at all exceed his grasp (or wouldn't, were it not for those pesky mental health issues that plague him, Travis Bickel, Rupert Pupkin, and their ilk). The movie proves this point again and again, as he demonstrates his capacity for, well, violence (a necessary part of the law enforcement game, though certainly not the only element of it). This is really what sets Ronnie apart from many other characters cut from the same comedic mold; when it comes time to separate the men from the boys, he won't run away, he won't go down easily, and he just might shoot your ass if you push him too far.

The fact that Ronnie's big break (to recycle an old Simpsons quote, did you know the Chinese have the same word for crisis as they do for opportunity? "Yes, crisitunity!") comes in the form of a flabby male flasher (who puts Jason Segal in Forgetting Sarah Marshall to shame, actually) is interesting, to say the least. It finally gives him the opportunity to protect the helpless from a fairly appalling threat, a chance to shine, to be a beacon of hope at this otherwise helpless time in which he sees himself. Obviously, he's exemplary of the "any means necessary" culture that's been apparently grown these last 7.5 years, nurtured Keifer Sutherland and the rest of the people involved with 24. George W. Bush had Osama Bin Laden, and Ronnie Barnhardt has this fat guy running around with his dick hanging out.

Of course, no one takes Ronnie seriously, so he has to prove his mettle. A motivated Ronnie Barnhardt is a dangerous Ronnie Barnhardt, as a group of skateboarding children soon discover. Along the way, he has to find that true love was staring him in the face all along (and is bossed around/verbally abused by Patton Oswalt. Patton Oswalt!), that the people closest to you aren't always the people you can trust, and that maybe, just maybe, everything you really needed was right inside you all along. Is one of those plot points an egregious lie, you think?

Devin Faraci over at CHUD.com, in his review, writes enough about the "tone" of the film that I won't waste your time saying that I agree with him, and then spending three paragraphs restating everything he's said that I agree with. I will say, though, that I appreciate a movie that understands the balance of light and dark that's supposed to exist within it. Observe and Report should be one of those movies that causes you to reexamine contemporary life, or to consider how devastating a shattered dream can be, or even just why you shouldn't fuck with authority, but you're laughing too hard to notice (assuming you get "the joke").

Seth Rogen's performance... well, I will think twice before ever again accusing him of having played basically the same character since Freaks & Geeks. Maybe it's just that he's such a comfortable performer that I don't really appreciate the nuances that go into his performances, or haven't until now. That's really one of the most jarring choices Jody Hill (director) made, and probably the one that got his movie greenlit: casting Seth Rogen as a smoldering psychopath. You will believe that Seth Rogen could take down a motherfucker or two diving out of the Black Beauty by the time the film is done (maybe I'll start referring to this as his "audition tape" for the part of the Green Hornet, minus the fact that he was signed on to write/star in the film for a while before the release of Observe and Report). Of course, Ronnie is far more mentally unstable than a man who dresses up in a uniform and beats criminals to a pulp (hey, wait a second...), but the point remains: Seth Rogen, action star, just might work.

But, that's not doing him justice. Every character in Observe and Report has a very fine line to walk between being dislikable because they're a totally pathetic, retrodden joke and being dislikable because they're just such fucking horrible people (with the exception of Collette Wolfe's "God, I Look Too Much Like Tara Reid" Nell - she's absolutely adorable). Every actor rides that line perfectly, but no one moreso than Seth Rogen. He retains just enough of that difficult-to-describe Seth Rogen...ness to command our attention, but he knows exactly when, and how, to let the rage and hate that lie within Ronnie bubble to the surface, like some kind of magma-spewing geological force. He's not a wholly bad guy; he's stuck with his disaster of an alcoholic of a mom, after all (the scene where he places the blanket over her after she's collapsed to the floor is actually kind of sweet, as is the scene where she tells him she's switching from drinking hard liquor all day to beer).

Anna Faris is a pretty close second to Rogen, in all fairness. There's nothing about Brandi that's even remotely attractive, except what's on the very outside of her, and why Ronnie thinks there's something inside of her that's worth discovering is totally beyond me, but it's not like she's actively a bad person or anything. She's exceptionally funny, and at least honest. [ASIDE: The uproar over the sex scene in the movie, I honestly don't quite understand. I understand that "date rape" - which I don't think it is - isn't as intrinsically as funny a subject as, say, alcohol poisoning or a monkey in a tuxedo, but that's precisely what I'm getting at when I talk about committing to the joke. A Ben Stiller movie would've jumped right over that; Observe and Report doesn't. She didn't even look passed out to me, frankly, just... inactive. Everyone's had an inactive partner before, right? She's drunk, by her own doing, not Ronnie's, so she's not going to be jumping up and down on him or something. END ASIDE] I certainly don't like her, especially when she's compared to Nell, but I just as certainly don't hate her, either. She's a good character in a good movie.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Ray Liotta looks like he's lost about 15 years of age between Narc and Observe and Report. The wonders you get from dropping weight and an amazing goatee.

Observe and Report is one of the best subversive films I've seen in years, but not in what I consider the traditional sense, not the sense I'm accustomed to. It's not pushing a skewed political agenda (though I guess I've made some pretty overt parallels between Ronnie and George W. Bush... I think I'm reading too much into it that way), it just lures you into thinking you're going to see one sort of movie, and has shoved a totally different one down your throat by the end. And it's so much better for it.


timd said...

in case it hasn't been said to you enough - get into eastbound and down as soon as you get the chance.

Phil W said...

That makes you something like the third person today to mention it. I must investigate further.