Review: Observe and Report
On Friday, I posted about the movie's appalling trailer which shows the main character raping an unconscious woman, who wakes up just long enough to indicate that she's enjoying being raped.
I was repeatedly reassured that I was interpreting the trailer out of context and that I couldn't possibly judge the movie until I'd seen it in full. That seemed like a reasonable argument, so I did.
O&R is billed as a dark comedy. Fans assured me that the rape scene wasn't an endorsement of rape, but rather a darkly funny illustration of the true depravity of the main character, mall cop Ronnie Barnhardt.
They're right that the scene is not an endorsement of rape; it's just a cheap rape joke. If you're going to introduce a high stakes and potentially exploitative element into your movie, you'd better do something interesting with it.
As a dark comedy, O&R is a failure. A mall cop martinet seems like a great target for satire. I was disappointed to see the director pulling his punches time and time again. Apart from the physical and sexual violence, it was pretty easy to watch but only intermittently funny.
O&R is supposed to be a satire of delusional machismo, but it falls flat because Hill won't risk alienating the college boys who make up this movie's core demographic. A really dark comedy makes us uncomfortable not just by showing gross things, but by forcing us to question our own reactions to what we're seeing.
We all buy into the macho mythos to a certain degree. As any moviegoer can attest, it's easy and fun to identify with charismatic action figures who play by their own rules. A good satire might challenge us to reexamine those ingrained reactions.
The joke is that poor Ronnie is just too lame to pull off the macho fantasy, not so much that the fantasy itself is bizarre and destructive. Ronnie is so pathetic that he's easy to laugh at without thinking too hard.
Hill doesn't want us to approve of Ronnie's behavior, but he's not prepared let us be totally repulsed, either. The most disturbing parts of the movie are Hill's attempts to twist logic to make Ronnie seem like less of a monster than you'd expect, given his behavior.
Ronnie is the head of security at a suburban mall. He's not a real policeman. He's not even allowed to carry a gun. But Ronnie's lowly position does nothing to diminish his delusions of grandeur. In his own mind, he's a powerful law enforcement official defending an oasis of commerce in a dangerous world.
The calm of the shopping center is suddenly shattered when a cackling bespectacled flasher darts around the parking lot exposing himself to women in broad daylight. The perp escapes.
Ronnie rushes to warn Brandi (Anna Faris), a cosmetics salesgirl and the object of Ronnie's futile crush. Brandi finds Ronnie's attentions unwanted and embarrassing.
"Everybody thinks they're okay until someone puts something in them they don't want in 'em," Ronnie tells her portentously.
The next day, Brandi pulls into the parking lot with sexually explicit music blasting from her car stereo. The flasher jumps out at her. She freaks out, but Anna Faris plays her distress as a transparent ploy for attention.
To Ronnie's dismay, the real police are called. In one of the funnier scenes in the movie, Det. Harrisson (Ray Liotta) attempts to question Brandi. Rogen, obviously insecure about having a real cop grilling "his" woman, tries to convince Det. Harrisson and Brandi that the stalker is targeting her for murder.
Ronnie embarks on his own crusade to catch the flasher. He confides to his mother that the perv may be the best thing that ever happened to him. He's going to prove that he's a hero by catching the perp.
After dark, Ronnie catches up to Brandi in the mall parking lot. He scares the hell out of her in the process of offering her a ride on his golf cart, but he won't take no for an answer, so she gets in. Instead of letting her off at her car, he keeps driving, joking that his brakes have failed. He asks her out on a date, making it clear that the only acceptable answer is "yes." She grudgingly agrees to go out with him.
Ronnie takes Brandi out to dinner. Before the food is served, he takes out a pill bottle and tries to discreetly swallow a tablet at the table. Brandi immediately demands to know what the meds are and whether she can have one. "Don't be stingy!" she chides. Her eyes light up when she learns that Ronnie's got a bottle of clonazepam (a tranquilizer similar to Valium, which has been used as a date rape drug).
Visibly impressed, she tells him she didn't know he liked to party like that. Ronnie replies, "Yeah, I party like that every four to six hours." To him, the pills are just boring bipolar medicine that keeps him from getting too excited. He's a little perplexed about why she's so interested in them, but he happily gives her the entire bottle. She immediately downs a handful, followed by six shots of tequila.
Some commenters have attempted to explain away the rape scene that follows by arguing that Brandi is obviously getting wasted in order to psych herself up to have sex with Ronnie. But there's no evidence to support that inference in the movie. Even if there were, it wouldn't establish consent. Hoping or intending to consent to something in the future is not the same as closing the deal.
To all appearances, Brandi's getting wasted because a) she loves alcohol and drugs and b) she hates being around Ronnie.
After dinner, Brandi throws up all over herself. Two seconds later she can't figure out why her mouth tastes so bad. Ronnie kisses her. Critically, she gives no indication of being aroused by or affectionate towards him. He more or less carries her into his house. The door closes behind them.
Cut to the rape scene with Ronnie grinding away on top of an unconscious Brandi. Her eyes are closed and there's fresh vomit in the pillow. Ronnie stops momentarily, as if conscience-stricken, but Brandi stirs and mutters, "Who told you to stop, motherfucker?" The audience in my theater thought that line was hee-larious.
As Seth Rogen explained in an interview, you think he's a rapist, but he's not. Psych! The joke only works if you assume that it's not rape to have sex with someone who doesn't even realize she's covered in her own vomit.
The rape scene was a missed opportunity to force the viewer to confront the parallels between Ronnie and the flasher. As David Edelstein put it, "The fat creep has not only given Ronnie’s life a focus—he’s virtually Ronnie’s doppelgänger."
Ronnie thinks that he's a knight in shining armor who's protecting Brandi from a sexual predator, but he ends up raping her. In a movie where every other important point is stated clearly in the dialog, the understated comparison seems like weak sauce.
Frustratingly, everything about the rape sequence is contrived to make Ronnie seem as non-predatory as possible. Hill implies that Ronnie's just so infatuated with Brandi that he doesn't notice the difference between a disgusting date rape and a romantic evening. It would have been more honest, and much darker, to allow Ronnie a more realistic macho mindset--like just not caring, or feeling entitled.
We're led to believe that Ronnie is some kind of lovesick idiot manchild who just doesn't know any better. Hill doesn't want his frat boy audience to have to grapple with the idea that Ronnie's macho messiah complex has anything to do with rape. So, Hill includes dialog that's supposed to indicate, belatedly, that she consented all along.
He also makes Brandi's character so shallow, manipulative, drug addled, and "slutty" that the target demographic feels she deserves what she gets. Brandi's character is noteworthy because she has no redeeming characteristics whatsoever. Even Ronnie has his good points, like his tenderness towards his falling-down drunk mom, and his refusal to steal from his employer, and his heartfelt thirst for justice. I defy anyone who has seen O&R to cite an example of a good, or even neutral, characteristic of Brandi.
Stung by dismissive comments from Det. Harrisson, Ronnie decides to apply to the police academy. He gets permission to go on a ride-along with Harrisson, who is still pissed off at Ronnie for derailing mall investigations. So, Harrisson drives him to the worst neighborhood in town, offers to let him do a "foot patrol" and speeds off.
This is the setup for Ronnie's first episode of murderous rage. A little kid tries to sell Ronnie some crack, whereupon he attempts to make a citizen's arrest only to be surrounded by the boy's gun-toting crack dealer father and his heavily tattooed entourage. The father pulls a gun on Ronnie. Ronnie pulls a blunt object out of his pant leg and beats them all savagely. The next day, he marches the kid into the police station and announces to the amazement of the officers that he has killed six crackheads.
Some have argued that Ronnie is a totally unsympathetic character and the viewer is always meant to be horrified by his violent and predatory behavior. But the crackhead beat down (murder?) scene is clearly played for vicarious thrills in usual action movie way. We're supposed to cheer on Ronnie because he sure showed those crackheads and those sneering cops who thought he couldn't do the job.
The violence in Observe and Report comes in several flavors. Some of it is played purely for laughs or squirms, like when Ronnie turns his Taser on a lippy patron who's parked in a loading dock. Some of it is just surreal and pointless--like the scene where Ronnie and his top lieutenant, Dennis (Michael Peña), get high and brutally assault a crowd of skateboarders in the parking lot.
But the most important plot-driven violence is supposed to be cathartic.
When Ronnie finally snaps, he decides to avenge the maltreated wheelchair-bound girl at the food court counter by nearly shoving her boss's head into a blazing pizza oven, a scene reminiscent of the pizza oven scene in Goodfellas, except that the fast food boss has been set up as such a jerk that Ronnie seems like an avenging angel instead of a sick bully.
Ronnie's illusions about Brandi are shattered during a midnight parking lot patrol when he peeks in the window of Det. Harrisson's car and sees Brandi having enthusiastic consensual sex with the real police officer in the back seat. (Another genuinely funny moment.)
Ronnie eventually gets fired after an equally bizarre standoff with the real police.
When he finally returns to the mall as a dejected civilian, the flasher suddenly rears his ugly schlong.
The flasher once again accosts Brandi. Ronnie pulls out a gun and shoots him in the middle of the cosmetics section. The flasher falls to the floor in a lake of blood. Even the blood-spattered Brandi is impressed, but when she compliments Ronnie on his "nice work" he takes the opportunity to humiliate her in front of the entire crowd. He tells them that Brandi's the kind of woman who will have sex with you and sleep with your enemy.
Hill rewards the frat boys by letting Ronnie take Brandi down a peg. The folks at my screening hooted appreciatively--clearly, Brandi's an uppity bitch who betrayed her rapist by having consensual sex with his rival. This isn't such a dark and transgressive comedy that female sexuality goes unpunished.
We think the flasher's dead, but Hill flinches yet again. He turns out to be only slightly wounded. So, Ronnie gets to frog march him to the police station past a throng of admiring policemen. As Ronnie triumphantly points out, he has caught the perp that the police couldn't nab.
After that, everything falls into place for our anti-hero. He gets his job back. He gets the good girl--that self-described born again virgin from the food court, whose boss he assaulted.
In the final scene Ronnie regales a TV news team with his professional and personal triumphs. Pointing to his now-girlfriend he explains that she has made a promise not to have sex with him, but that he intends to make her break it.
Observe and Report has a promising premise and some decent acting, but it's just not funny enough to be an action comedy and not gutsy enough to redeem the rape scene as anything but crass exploitation. Hill congratulates himself for pushing the envelope, but the envelope is empty.