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April 10, 2009

TIME critic raves for the "Observe & Report" rape scene

TIME film critic Richard Corliss delivers a review of the new comedy Observe & Report that's as disturbing as the rape scene excerpted in the trailer.

Corliss's review is really more of a review of the rape scene than a review of the movie. In short, he loved it:

Here's a scene to frighten the horses. About an hour into Observe and Report, mall cop Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) has finally achieved his dream and taken the blonde, egotistical, doltish perfume saleslady Brandi (Anna Faris) to bed, basically by getting her drunk. Problem is, she's pretty much passed out, her puke staining the pillow, as Ronnie happily, obliviously churns away. He pauses for a moment to notice her comatose state, and without opening her eyes, Brandi mutters, "Why'd you stop, malefactor?" Or a 12-letter word to that effect.

Now that's character comedy, I mean tragedy, I mean tromedy, of the highest, I mean lowest, I mean high-lowest order. Beyond the weirdness, if you can get there, is a quick portrait of trailer-park America pursuing its urges by any means necessary. It's clear that Ronnie, no babe magnet, will take what he can get on this night of nights, even if it's not quite the exalted ecstasy he had hoped for; and that Brandi, who's been in this position once or twice before, wants the sexual exercise, even if she's not awake to take an active role in it — somewhere in her stupor, she's feeling a rote rumble of pleasure. The scene achieves what few American movies even attempt: to pinpoint the grim compromise, the desperation, that can attend the sex act. Don't call it love; don't call it grand; but whatever it is, don't stop

That minute or so is the finest thing in Observe and Report, and if it doesn't strike you as funny-peculiar, you may as well stop reading now. (Emphasis added.) [TIME]

Some have defended the scene on the grounds that Observe & Report is a dark comedy and Ronnie the bipolar mall cop is a cartoonishly unsympathetic character. They argue that he's funny because almost everything he does is so obviously wrong. We laugh when he physically assaults people for no good reason. So, why not laugh at the rape scene?

But Seth Rogen's understanding of the joke is entirely different:

When we're having sex and she's unconscious like you can literally feel the audience thinking, like, how the fuck are they going to make this okay? Like, what can possibly be said or done that I'm not going to walk out of the movie theater in the next thirty seconds? . . . And then she says, like, the one thing that makes it all okay:"Why are you stopping, motherfucker?"

Rogen is saying that the scene is a bait and switch: We're led to think Ronnie's a date rapist, but at the last possible minute we realize that Brandi consented after all. Psych!

That she's drunk, drugged out, covered with her own vomit, and unconscious is never in doubt. 

Rogen excels at a brand of awkwardness-based humor where much of the laughter is tension release. Which means that the scene fails on its own terms, unless you believe that an unconscious person can consent. Without the unexpected "evidence" of consent, it's just a rape scene. If you see the encounter as rape, Brandi's slurred semi-conscious interjection just seems piteous. It doesn't make anything "okay."

Corliss apparently relishes the sexual violence in the spirit Rogen intended.

Corliss also reaffirms the patriarchal nostrum that slutty women consent to sex by default. He writes: "Brandi, who's been in this position once or twice before, wants the sexual exercise, even if she's not awake to take an active role in it — somewhere in her stupor, she's feeling a rote rumble of pleasure." So, even when she's unconscious, she's asking for it. 

Don't even get me started on the "trailer park America" line--as if substance abuse and sexual assault are just for working class people. Tell that to the frat boys.

I haven't seen the movie, so I'm not going to judge its merits as a film. It's possible that Corliss and Rogen are misinterpreting what writer-director Jody Hill is trying to do. Maybe the scene is funny in context, despite being apparently morally reprehensible. I mean, anything's possible.

Regardless, Corliss's review and Rogen's commentary are chilling because they so casually reaffirm the stereotypes that perpetuate date rape. Makes you wonder how many other people are in on the joke.

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Comments

I haven't seen the film or the scene, but it sounds awful. Just wanted to note that the woman saying "Why'd you stop, motherf***r?" doesn't even sound like any kind of doped-out consent to me. Rather, it sounds like the last act of defiance left to a totally defenseless victim: a way of saying "f**k you, rapist."

If a woman/girl is very, very drunk, she is incapable of giving consent. Therefore, this is a rape. Period.

I don't think I've seen the specific trailer that includes that scene, and yet I've gotten to the point that I change the channel every time a commercial for the movie comes on because I've come to loathe it so much.

At least "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" looked like it might have one or two funny scenes. This is one of those movies where I watch the trailer and think, "Couldn't they find anything funny for the trailer?"

These people are fucking assholes. Because it is fictional therefore it makes it OK- Rogen nakedly admits it is a fuck you to the audience. Maybe that makes it dark as fuck, but it doesn't make it funny under any circumstances.

It's not a rape, it's a movie. Portrayal is neither admiration or admonition; it's a statement that must be interpreted. Unless you believe that mentioning the phrase "date rape" makes it happen, you are operating at a level that isn't likely to change anyone's attitude.

Consider the opposite portrayal, in which weirdly principled adolescents stop short, such as the classic Animal House episode in which Pinto ignores the devil on his shoulder and returns his comatose date home in a shopping cart. Did this and dozens of other unlikely outbreaks of sexual responsibility curtail or reduce the incidence of date rape? nope. It's a dark comedy, and is intended to push your buttons. Mission accomplished.

ice

Pinko Punko is looking at the movie as social commentary. Maybe it is, although that would depend on whether we're being led to analyse the mall cop's behaviour or sympathise with him. But this article is about Corliss' review of the scene. The Time critic treats it as a normal if unlovely part of US culture, and not as the rape that it is. He accepts or invents the excuse that she consented, that she was capable of giving consent. Presumably either the film did not question this or Corliss is as nastily complicit in his attitude to rape as, sadly, many of his fellow Americans.

Sure, violent action films condone an uncritical acceptance of murder. That may have consequences for society, but there are at least in that case some forces acting in the other direction. Rape is horrifyingly acceptable. Films which condone this deserve criticism. Film critics who perpetuate this are even worse. How many men brag to their mates about having committed a murder? How many brag about having got a woman so drunk she couldn't say no? Corliss has effectively made himself a cheer squad for the latter group.

When I first saw that trailer a week or so ago, I didn't think the film was supposed to be categorized as a comedy. It looked to me like a fine example of the psychological horror genre.

oops, Sorry Pinko Punko I was referring to the comment by "ice".

Ice, I wouldn't automatically object to a dark comedy that featured an evil mall cop raping a drunk woman.

What's objectionable about this scene is that the screenwriters pulled their punches by making the Brandi character "consent."

It's not about depicting rape, it's about presupposing that the audience has an inaccurate and antiquated set of assumptions about what rape is. That's condescending, and to the extent that it's false, it's a failure of comedy. The screenwriter won't get the tension-release-laughter response that Rogen says he was aiming for.

You can't fall back on the dark comedy excuse. The "don't stop" is a copout, a failure to commit to the real darkness of what this character is doing. The "payoff" of the joke in that scene is supposed to lighten the mood, not darken it. As Seth Rogen explained, having Brandi suddenly pipe up something about consent is supposed to convince the viewer that what we just saw wasn't rape.

It doesn't look like the movie cops out on the physical violence in the same way. When Ronnie hits someone, the filmmakers don't feel obliged to make the victim get up and laugh and exclaim, "Good one, Ronnie, you're such card!" We're supposed to cringe when he hurts people, and maybe that's funny in a dark way. I actually enjoyed the trailer, apart from the rape scene.

I think you got at more of it in that reply Lindsay; it seems to me that it's more cowardice than anything. I mean, lest we forget, we're talking about Seth Rogen and Anna Faris, not exactly a couple of actors known for their deeply serious roles. The writers could have made it "dark," and then left the interpretation of it ambiguous, at least, or even made it unambiguously disturbing, but that probably wouldn't play to the typical crowd who comes to see the kind of movie the actors are associated with, so they feel like they need to toss in a (really, really bad) punchline.

As for what that does to the scene on the whole, I have no idea, since I haven't seen the movie (and probably won't for that matter).

"Rogen and Anna Faris, not exactly a couple of actors known for their deeply serious roles"

This might not give them enough credit -- in a fashion, they are gifted actors, both in some interesting roles with mass appeal. Roles that have some interesting lessons to teach about social understandings.

The film "Knocked Up" comes to mind in this category, including its idea of humor and gender relations.

Richard Corliss made the error of suggesting the actions of the character Brandi are somehow to be taken as representative of a class of people, rather than to be taken as the actions of the character Brandi.

Lindsay Beyerstein made several typos.

Ronnie the bipolar mall cop is a cartoonishly unsympathetic character.
The more movies I see about ostensibly "unsympathetic characters," the more I come to doubt the possibility of mainstream film ever portraying its protagonists unsympathetically. Whether it's caused by the reaction of the audience who want somebody to love or the involvement of actors and directors becoming too attached to and taking the side of the characters they're dealing with, the "unsympathetic character," no matter what his supposed faults, will always appear to be a "hero."
Whether it's caused by the reaction of the audience who want somebody to love or the involvement of actors and directors becoming too attached to and taking the side of the characters they're dealing with, the "unsympathetic character," no matter what his supposed faults, will always appear to be a "hero."

You mean, like, Hamlet, for instance?

1) Richard Corliss, despite his impressive CV, has become a moron who likes pretty much every movie. Even Stephen King, hack extraordinaire, has said so publicly. Corliss has to justify being a cheerleader for the dominant ideology somehow, so he comes up with gems like the one in question, now sadly completely blind to the cultural implications of anything that goes into his ear hole/eye hole/mouth hole. It doesn't make him any less wrong, but the man is pushing 70, and probably fondly remembers, (perhaps secretly) the days before broads got all uppity.
2) I'm sure that DJA's reference Hamlet is just a way to get Tyro to clarify his argument on when sympathy or affection for "unsympathetic protagonists" may in fact be warranted. Please say I am correct in this assumption.

I think the NY Times review sums it up very well:

"Comedy is often cruel, of course, but before 1968, the year the movie rating system was instituted, directors couldn’t squeeze laughs from the suggestion of date rape, as Mr. Hill tries to do here. [...] Mr. Hill has upped the ante in this extreme comedy scene not only by creating a working-class, bipolar bully who lives with his alcoholic mother, but also by asking us to laugh at this pathetic soul — and his miserably constrained life — as well as at the violence he wreaks. The dolts in “Dumb and Dumber” had hearts of gold. Ronnie has a gun.

Mr. Hill says his movie was inspired by “Taxi Driver,” a self-flattering comparison. Like those of Travis Bickle, Ronnie’s delusions of grandeur do end in a paroxysm of blood. Yet while Martin Scorsese might be overly fond of screen violence, part of what makes that film profound and memorable is how the thrill of violence, its seduction, is always in play with a palpable moral revulsion. No such dialectic informs “Observe and Report,” which exploits Ronnie and his brutality for laughs. This lack of critique might make the movie seem daring. But it’s hard to see what is so bold about a film that, much like the world outside the theater, turns the pain and humiliation of other people into a consumable spectacle."

To view this as a date rape ignores everything that is going on in "Observe and Report." This is a film about someone who has a grandiose self-perception leading a life that is squalid and pathetic from the viewpoint presented to the audience. It's an ugly movie about an ugly person. Jody Hill, the director, compares it to "Taxi Driver" and "The King of Comedy" films in which disturbed protagonists with delusions of grandeur commit sickening acts.

The sexual relationship portrayed isn't Harry and Sally meeting cute; it's a funhouse-mirror distortion of the traditional rom-com coupling. The Anna Faris character is a self-centered, boozy idiot. The Seth Rogen character is a violent, creepy bipolar psycho on a power trip. Obviously, when they get together, it is not going to be the Platonic idea of romantic love. "Observe and Report" isn't that kind of movie.

The joke is that the Sethe Rogen character thinks it is. He thinks he's Prince Charming and she's Sleeping Beauty, when we see that he's really a creepy stalker and she's a trashy idiot. He thinks he's rescuing her, but she's really settling for him because she's afraid to be alone.

When they go out, and she chases pills with shots until she pukes all over herself, he refuses to allow that to alter his idealized view of her, even as the audience is encouraged to be disgusted by the pair of them. The Rogen character also craves approval from his mother, who is a trampy blonde alcoholic, so that adds an extra level of weirdness and discomfort to the whole proceeding.

The suggestion that what transpires between them is a rape doesn't seem to flow organically from the characters; it's interposed by people bringing their own context to the situation, and the people who are most upset about it probably have not seen the movies. There is certainly a grossness at the core of the situation, but in the context presented, it seems pretty clear that she is offering herself sexually, and that he probably would not intentionally force himself on a nonconsenting partner (which would be inconsistent with his approval-seeking and his heroic self-image).

Rather, she's already been the victim of a sex crime; she was assaulted by a flasher in the mall parking lot. As a result, she feels vulnerable, and she concludes that she must protect herself from further victimization by initiating a relationship with the mall security chief, a man she has previously had no interest in. In that context, she's consuming the drugs and alcohol because she has decided to participate in a sex act with the Rogen character, and she doesn't want to do it sober.

The punchline gag encapsulates the relationship; she is consenting unambiguously, but it nonetheless resembles rape. This is the director's comment on the events leading up to the sex act; the ugliest moment is presented in the ugliest light. We are encouraged to view the characters as uncharitably as possible. It's not apologia, but condemnation. To construe it otherwise misses the entire point of the film. Unlike typical comedies which encourage the audience to identify with the characters, "Observe and Report" maintains a cold distance. The audience is never supposed to like the Rogen character or share his worldview; his triumphs are revolting rather than cathartic, and his humiliation is mocked rather than shared. The central irony of the movie is the disparity between how the character sees himself and how the audience is encouraged to view him.

The Anna Faris character is a self-centered, boozy idiot.

And therefore we're not supposed to care about her. Nevermind that "self-centered, boozy idiot" is a stereotype that, no matter how ill-fitting, real life rapists use to evade justice in real life. Thanks for helping to make it legal to rape a woman if she's been drinking. Rapists appreciate your help. Every bit counts.

@Mitchforth --

Everything you write may be right -- but then the movie fails, ultimately, by softening the blow. If you want to make a dark comedy with an evil hero, by all means, go ahead and revel in his awfulness. Good comedy is often wrung out of discomfort, and one could easily see his engaging in date rape as part of the larger pattern.

But by softening the blow -- by having Farris' character "give consent"* -- the movie is trying to play it both ways. Rogen's character becomes, not a monster, but a lovable cad. That's a cop-out. And it heightens, rather than lessens, my disgust with the scene.

*Of course, I tend to think that someone who's blackout drunk and overdosed on antidepressants is ipso facto incapable of giving consent, so I don't think the scene becomes "okay" no matter how vocally Farris' character agrees. But what do I know?

From IMDB:
I saw this tonight at an advance college screening and came away disappointed. I'm a huge fan of Seth Rogen's films, but this was just too dark and depressing for me to enjoy. It's hard to get behind any of the characters; their worst sides are always on display, and I ended up hating all of them. There's plenty of "laugh at the poor schmuck" type humor, but at a certain point the characters' lives and "ambitions" are so pathetic that you just start to feel bad for everyone involved. If you can laugh at emotionally weak people getting walked all over without coming away depressed, you can probably enjoy this movie. All in all, not completely intolerable and it has its moments but I expected more from Rogen and this film.

Sounds like a film designed to appeal to adolescents (i.e. 12 year olds) who don't know any better, except they can't get in because it's restricted.


Amanda,

I don't think the writer-director, Jody Hill, intends for us to care about any of these characters. They are dumb people living pathetic lives. He certainly doesn't look with approval on what happens.

What happens in the movie is that the Rogen character is a security guard with a creepy crush on the Faris character, who works at a makeup counter. She isn't interested in him.

Then she is flashed by a pervert in the parking lot. This experience is extremely frightening to her, and she becomes afraid for her safety. The Rogen character vows to hunt down the flasher. She decides to go out with Rogen, she gets wasted on the date, and they have sex.

The reasonable interpretation of the events is that she is aware of his availability before the flasher, and afterwards, she decides to be receptive to his attention because he can protect her. She probably gets drunk because she believes she deserves better than Rogen and finds him unattractive, but she feels she needs him anyway, because she's frightened to be alone. She's upset because her vulnerability to assault by the flasher has exploded a lot of her illusions about her life, and she's facing a reality that is much diminished from her previous expectations.

This set of circumstances is fortuitous for the Rogen character, to the extent that he has longed for this woman and circumstances have suddenly made her available, and that the pursuit of the seedy pervert has suddenly given him his heroic quest. But to the extent that the Faris character's sudden availability is coerced, he's oblivious and completely incapable of grasping the underlying grossness of the situation. He's not introspective; he's a guy who was too dumb to pass the police exam. And he's totally wrapped up in his distorted narrative about himself, so it makes perfect sense to him that, as the hero, he should get the girl.

The flasher, of course, is symbolic. He could stand for any number of anxieties that might drive a woman into the arms of the nearest available guy that she previously might have rejected. He's loneliness, fear of aging, fear of economic insecurity, whatever. In the movie, this threat is mostly represented as a small, flaccid penis. The Rogen character probably also symbolizes Bush, where the flasher incident is 9/11 and Faris is America.

Jeff,

A lot of people think intoxication should void consent to sex, but it currently does not under the law of any US state. An unconscious person cannot consent to sex, but the consent of a conscious but heavily intoxicated person defeats an accusation of rape. "Who told you to stop, motherfucker?" would constitute a complete defense for the Rogen character if he were prosecuted for rape.

This is confusing, because intoxication of a party can void agreement to enter into a contract, and also, a higher level of "informed" consent is necessary to agree to a medical procedure. But if you assume she is conscious when he initiates the sex act, it's not rape, as defined by law.

But the fact that she consents to the sex doesn't make him likable. It just makes him not a rapist. That's okay, because it's not a movie about a rapist.

He's likable in his own mind. From his perspective, he is rescuing this woman and it makes perfect sense that she should love him for it. He's still a violent psycho creep, and his affection for this woman and her sad relationship with him remains creepy and gross.

I think the scene was a mistake because it's a throwaway; an unsubtle way to hammer home the yuckiness of the preceding scenes, and it's so explosive for a lot of people that it subsumes everything else. Once there is reference to rape, the movie is going to be about rape for a lot of viewers.

"So, even when she's unconscious, she's asking for it."

Technically, she did, by saying what she said...that's the joke. It's a movie, not real life. In real life, you can't be unconscious and speak. Yet we have to analyze this as if we "know" she was unconsious and didn't consent.

And about context, since we're analyzing this one scene in depth: what if she passed out only after the sex started, only to have Seth's character notice, then STOP, then have her say "why'd you stop motherfucker". No rape. None involved in that scenario. Just drunk people having sex. It gets sloppy sometimes, Jesus.

Stop getting your panties in a bundle over something so stupid.

Mitch, from what you're saying it sounds like a larger problem is that Jody Hill is using a lot of really ugly stereotypes to illustrate his thesis about the yuckiness of modern life.

It's not incidental that the main characters are working class, or working poor. It's supposed to be extra ridiculous that Ronnie believes himself to be important and Brandi to be his dream woman. Because he's just a mall cop and she's just a drunk floozie. Again, it's not necessarily that the director wants to convince us that poor people suck or that date rape is cool. I doubt he believes either of those things. However, he trades on some very nasty stereotypes to evoke recognition and laughter. The rape scene presupposes that the audience has certain retrograde assumptions about rape and sex. A crowd laughing together at the "motherfucker" joke is reinforcing the consensus that an unconscious person can consent to rape as long as she stirs and mumbles something halfway through.

Hill is helping himself to the stereotype of the woman who drinks herself into oblivion in order to have sex she doesn't really want. That assumption is really convenient for anyone who chooses to interpret drunken oblivion as default consent. That default consent assumption allows him to cast this as a mutually yucky encounter rather than a crime.

Hill can't have it both ways. This can't be a dark comedy about the pathos of late-stage capitalism and simultaneously be a pure flight of fancy where the characters' antics are no commentary on dating/power/sex in real life.

Mitchforth: "A lot of people think intoxication should void consent to sex, but it currently does not under the law of any US state."

You have now proven that you have no idea what you are talking (writing?) about, because that is absolutely wrong. Most US states, including my home state California, have laws explicitly declaring that drunk women can not consent to rape. And even in those few states that don't, proving lack of consent by a drunken woman in court is usually pretty easy, because it is well known that being drunk badly impairs the judgment.

No, me, the director explicitly shows her passed out before and during sex--eyes closed, immobile, flecked with vomit. In the buildup to the rape scene, before she passes out on Ronnie's bed, Brandi throws up on herself and two seconds later she can't figure out why her mouth tastes so bad. The director isn't subtle in the setup. He's going out of his way to tell us that this woman has no idea what's happening to her.

As Seth Rogen says in the interview, Brandi's out cold by the time he starts fucking her. Even the most retrograde audience member understands somewhere in the higher reaches of his cortex that sex with a completely unconscious person is rape.

The "motherfucker" joke only makes sense if you infer--bizarrely, and contrary to all on-screen evidence--that this utterance indicates that Brandi was consenting and enjoying all along.

The audience is expected to make the leap because they've made it so many times before. No matter how absurd the inference, if a woman gets raped, someone will concluded that she was asking for it--because of how she dressed, or what she drank, or who she'd been with before. That's where the idea of default consent comes in. There are all kinds of stereotypes about "loose women", prostitutes, and drunks that reinforce the idea that that kind of woman doesn't have to actually agree to any particular sex act because she's implicitly made herself available to any man, anytime, just by being the kind of person she is.

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