Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Observe and Report: The Modern Male Psyche

In the first half of the year 2009, two major studios have released two comedies centered on characters whose occupation is a mall security guard. The first, released this past January, was "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," and the second, set to be released this Friday, is "Observe and Report." The first film starred Kevin James as the titular Paul Blart, a fat, oafish, bumbling man in a job which others look down at him for, but what he found to be a great source of pride. That film has become one of this years greatest financial successes, netting over one-hundred million dollars at the U.S. box office since it's opening at the beginning of the year. The second film, "Observe and Report," stars Seth Rogen as the fat, oafish head of mall security, a job which others look down on him for, but for which he finds as a great source of pride. You may ask yourself, is there a need for two movies so similar in premise? Much less two movies released mere months from one another? The answer to that is no, but while one is satisfied with being light, mediocre entertainment, the other has a greater task at hand.

"Observe and Report" is writer/director Jody Hill's second film, coming off the Sundance cult hit "The Foot Fist Way," and the HBO series "East Bound and Down." Both of Hill's earlier pieces dealt with failure, in "Foot Fist," the failure of a Tae Kwon Doe instructor with delusions of grandeur, and in "East Bound" the fall from grace of a superstar Major League pitcher. Each film in it's own way explored the chasm between their protagonists' self image and the way others perceived them. "Observe and Report" begins with that same theme, this time following a mall security guard, played by Seth Rogen, whose belief in the importance of his job and his ability to solve crime, he grossly overestimates. It is in this dark gray area where Hill begins to deconstruct the contemporary young-adult male psyche, one raised on video games, action movies, and raunchy comedies, like the very one that Rogen's Ronnie Barnhardt is in.

"Right now the world needs a fucking hero."

As the film opens, Ronnie is being called upon to investigate a flasher who has been exposing himself to women in the mall parking lot. Ronnie, a heavily medicated twenty-something with bi-polar disorder, snaps into action, assigning tasks to his group of underlings, and arrogantly dictating the terms of the investigation to his boss and the detective who's been assigned to the case, played by a craggy Ray Liotta. Having some sense of power and purpose, Ronnie immediately informs the make-up counter girl Brandi, played by Anna Faris, that there's a flasher on the loose, but assures her without prompting that he'll protect her. After Brandi becomes the next victim of the flasher, Ronnie inflates her panic and terror, and uses it to convince her to go on a date with him. Through grizzled voice-over, Ronnie talks about Brandi being the only thing worth saving, saying that he's the one who can protect her, protect the mall, and keep order in a chaotic, punishing world. Between these scenes of plot development, Hill places Ronnie's trips to a shooting range, and long, strange conversations with his alcoholic mother, played with stupor by Celia Weston, where Ronnie espouses the luck he's had with the flasher's sudden appearance, how it's given him a sense of duty, purpose, and drive.

Though the filmmakers might admit to it, Ronnie is every kid who went to see "The Dark Knight" and came out with it's sense of vigilante justice embedded into their minds. The kind of kid who spends hours shooting opponents in video games. Ronnie relates to the world like he himself is a caped crusader, operating in fantasy in lieu of actual experience, he is a few steps removed from reality. Ronnie's bi-polar disorder is merely a physicalization of that disconnect, one lived in by teenage boys locked in their rooms for hours on end absorbing online gaming, fantasy fiction and pop culture.

As with his previous work, Hill's interest lies in the complete immersion of his characters' in their delusions. For Ronnie, this happens when he decides to stop taking his bi-polar medication at a perceived high point. At this point in the film, Ronnie has gone through the tests to become a real cop, to work side by side with Liotta, and has quit his job at the mall, said farewell, and made plans for his new life and responsibility. When the plans go awry and he is rejected for the service, Ronnie's immersion in the fantasy like of hero-hood becomes complete. Unlike the levity this delusion would be treated with in most comedies, Ronnie's immersion is similar in depth and darkness to Travis Bickle's in "Taxi Driver," or Captain Willard's in "Apocalypse Now," and unlike any comedy I've seen, Ronnie's rage is not impotent but instead explodes in violent, effectively brutal ways. Ronnie's obsession with the flasher leads him to stalk to the mall, go undercover, and lose whatever shit he had in the first place. Hill's commentary is subtle, but at last he has created the perfect image of the delusional, arrogant personality that can develop as a result of the failure of the American dream. Perhaps we cannot be whatever we want to be, perhaps we can not will the world to our liking or impede on the rights of others without consequence. In Rogen's narration, Hill adds the self-aware meta touch of a character narrating a film in the way that character would want a movie about his life to be narrated, and even at one point includes Rogen screwing up, saying he'll "do that one again" in his normal voice, and then repeating the misread line in the same Batman-ish gravely voice.

Any expectation one may have going into "Observe and Report" is likely to be shattered, reshaped, and presented in a manner that is completely unexpected. How this film was produced by a major studio, at the budget it was, is anomaly that will be turned over in the years to come. Jody Hill, with the aid of his cast and his cinematographer Tim Orr, has made the most singularly unique, daring, political comedy I've seen. It may not have the heart of "Pineapple Express," but it's a work of such layered commentary and bizarre story turns, lines and performance. Yes, there were two mall cop movies released in 2009, but only one is as fresh and exciting as "Observe and Report."

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