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April 12, 2009

Review: Observe and Report

So, I saw Observe and Report, the new Seth Rogen vehicle written and directed by Jody Hill...

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.

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Comments

Bruce,

You're the only one making assumptions about the motives of acquaintance rapists (that they're different than strangers who rape.) If you want to make that argument, you should back it up with stats, because the purpose of the thread is how a clear rape is presented as a not-rape in this movie.

>You're the only one making assumptions about the motives of acquaintance rapists (that they're different than strangers who rape)....

It's also an assumption to say that they're the same. Anyways, I was mostly referring to the characters in the movie: the guy is not aware he's date raping, and is in fact mentally ill, so delusional he thinks having sex with an unconscious woman reeking of alcohol and vomit is a romantic situation.

So as you suggested I looked up some the stats, and with one exception they say about what I thought. Roughly 20% of women surveyed had been raped, most by acquaintances. The majority of the rapists were repeat offenders.

In one survey, about 8% of men admitted to behavior that met a definition of date rape or attempted date rape, and 85% of those who did didn't understand it as being such. That one surprised me, though you'd need an awfully clever and careful survey to get reliable data from a survey looking for perps.

If the majority of those men didn't see their act as rape, so that *does* seem to say acquaintance rapists are different than strangers who rape.

But my initial rant wasn't really about the perps, or sympathy for them. It was about get some focus on the most effective means to stop the harm yet also minimize collaterol damage. Its always tempting in activism to get too wrapped up about justice rather than solutions.

What the numbers say is that a small minority of men have ever attempted date rape, and probably most of the acts are committed by serial offenders. If this goes like most crime does, it's safe to assume half the offenders are doing 90% of the harm.

Here we have a problem. That's down to something like 4% of men. That's roughly the number of men who fit into the sociopath spectrum - men who pretend to have a conscience, but do not. The stereotypical profile is assertive and charming, interpersonally aggressive, and lacking impulse control (which may make them fun). Those guys won't mind considering themselves a bit predatory. They're probably the same guys who assault and predate other guys. They probably bully coworkers and sexually harass in the office, and were monsters in high school. Once they're done raping in college, they probably go on to commit white collar crime in banking. They can't be helped and need to be accurately identified then jailed as often and as long as possible for the safety of us all. They're not reading any of this, and if they are, they're laughing.

My own issue is that campaigns to stop date rape that are poorly framed or do not consider the forces at work on the more normal guys, might do more harm than good. First, it's a waste of resources and time if you alienate that maybe 4% of guys who might rape out of ignorance, stupidity, mental illness, etc - so they don't actually listen or learn anything.

But second, I hear a lot of women beyond college-age complain bitterly that guys "never approach me". Well, tv aside most guys are not "players", they're serial monogamists, and they're scared spitless of doing something innapropriate now. It's easy to create irrational fears that narrow the range of situations where they will risk rejection, or worse, a bad rumour being spread about them. This sounds like a small thing but it isn't; we all have a very limited time alive, and nowadays we spend way too much of it alone. Past feminist campaigns, necessary campaigns to prevent real harms that still exist, have been poorly communicated and did real damage. It does no good at all to antagonize the 92% of guys who are merely afraid of things getting any harder to figure out, due to bad communication.

"And frankly, although I agree that men are put in an untenable position wrt being stereotyped as unmanly, file that under, (1) patriarchy hurts men too, (2) feminism does not perpetuate those standards, and seeks to undermine them and (3) it sucks way more to be raped."

Ismone, you have just 100% summed up my feelings on the matter.

Personally, I think it would have been more shocking had he been a gentleman, and gone against the statis quo of the movie and just taken her home and put her to bed. People can and should be able to drink together, get drunk, and all without the expectation that there will be sex.

It would be funnier if they explored this concept of how a straight man would feel if a gay man had sex with him while he was passed out and drunk. Now THAT woudl be edgy and provocative, and I can almost assure you there would be loud cries of rape and disgust regarding the scene.

"It's also an assumption to say that they're the same."

Yes, you're absolutely right, shame on me. Since Lindsay doesn't seem to mind the OTness of this convo., and it is interesting, my two cents on what you found.

Some of this stuff should be tagged trigger warning.

I do not know if I believe the 85% who claim not to know they are in the wrong, but OTOH, based on conversations I've had on threads, it seems like a lot of people who claim not to be engaging in rape (whether acquaintance or stranger) hold the same attitudes. But here is why I think any efforts at change need to be aimed at the entire population, male and female.

1) We can't tell who the rapists are, and therefore cannot single them out for messages re: consent. (I agree with you that rapists are a small percent of our population, which is something I repeatedly flog when discussing the subject, because otherwise people, oddly, seem to think that when I talk about rapists, I am generalizing about men.)
2) Even if we could, the rest of the population, including women, may well serve on juries, go into law enforcement, be in the position of being a support person (or failing to do so, which is something I did with a friend of mine once, even after I had read a lot on the subject), or be in the position to affect a person who may eventually rape by speaking out on the subject of what is and isn't rape. So the not-okayness of this should be something everything knows, for reasons of crime prevention and remediation.
3) I think it is dangerous to assume that because a crime is horrible, those who commit it our sociopaths. That gives the rest of us an out (I'm not a sociopath, so I won't . . .) I don't want to get into this too much, but environment has a lot to do with whether a "normal" person will commit sexual assault, and by environment I mean culture and the immediate environment. I.e., some countries have a higher percentage of (1) rapists, (2) people (usually men, since pollsters don't tend to ask women these questions) who say they would commit a rape if they could get away with it. Also, if you've read much about war, you may have learned that certain people will commit atrocities during war that they would not on their own (i.e., an entire WWII infantry unit I know of, who, save one, raped a village of allied indigenous women in the south pacific), and some of the psych. work on gang rapists suggests that some of the "followers" would never have committed a rape on their own.
4) You know, I am sympathetic to the difficulties that relationship/sexual initiators have, having been one myself and realizing that the pressure still mostly falls on men. But I'm not that sympathetic. I really don't see how, as I said upthread, the person making the first move should be worried if they are PAYING ATTENTION TO THE OTHER PERSON. And this goes for women, too. Groping a guy's crotch or leg isn't okay because you're female and think it is somehow cute. It isn't cute. In many states, it is some kind of misdemeanor sexual assault, and regardless of what society says, a lot of men find this offensive/damaging/upsetting/sufficiently manly negative adjective. (Yes, this is somewhat different for established partners.) We all know what a consenting partner looks like. They say yes, they encourage you in the direction of whatever sex act they are participating in, etc., etc. We all should know that if a partner freezes up, starts crying, stops responding, dramatically changes their response pattern, it is time to check in. Either stop what we are doing, or ask questions, are you okay, does that hurt, we don't have to do this, what's wrong . . . that is baseline sexual ethics. And I really do not see the conflict between that and initiating. (I stopped and checked in once, turned out partner had a cracked rib and was too tough to tell me about it. Ack.)
5) Getting raped is way worse than getting rejected or being afraid to approach someone.
6) Better communication makes initiation easier. Which makes relationships better. And the feminist writers I read advocate that as well. But speaking as a female initiator, it goes both ways--I know women who ended up married to men they went out on dates with even though they didn't think they'd be interested in the guy, men I know will turn down dates with women who they don't think they'll be interested in. In my own (limited) sample size, women strike out a lot too.

> 1) We can't tell who the rapists are, and therefore cannot single them out for messages

You're right, but the messaging still has to be carefully done. Its very easy to give the sense that all men are under suspicion by default, even if that's not the intention.

> 2) Even if we could, the rest of the population..may...be in the position of being a support person...

In fact this is a key reason to be very careful to not let communication get antagonizing - men wind up dating women who have been raped. Often when myself or friends have found dating a particular person very confusing and difficult, it has later turned out they had been assaulted at some point (this is why I don't doubt the 20% number). It affects relationships further in as well. This is also a good way to motivate men to understand the issues, because they'll probably pay attention to something that promises to make the opposite sex seem less confusing.

>3) I think it is dangerous to assume that because a crime is horrible, those who commit it our sociopaths....

But I think it's safe to assume most of it is committed by people who fit the profile. In my experience, especially in workplaces, the same guys that abuse their coworkers also brag about cheating on their wives/gfs, sexually harasses, cheat in their work, cause turnover - and yet that guy is often thought charming. It seems to be a common pattern. I'm convinced now that these issues have a lot of overlap, whatever label you put on them. There are many campaigns focussing on the same defects in behavior but showing up in varied ways. Such a perp won't be reached campaigns themselves and won't learn - they can only be controlled by external forces. These guys are also the instigators of abusive behavior by groups, as you said, as if it's a communicable disease.

>4) You know, I am sympathetic to the difficulties that relationship/sexual initiators have...
>5) Getting raped is way worse than getting rejected or being afraid to approach someone...

My worry isn't about the discomfort felt by initiators at the time. My worry is the outcome. When I look around, outside of those who met in school, urban adults now seem to spend long periods of time single and very unhappy about it. When you add up that pain, I think it does need to be considered as a serious problem.

If the pain of being alone was a minor thing, then would women who have been raped wouldn't start dating again. Or wouldn't stay with a guy who had raped them or was abusive - many actually report that it was because being alone frightened them more.

It may be too ambitious, but its almost like some form of the basic "rules" of dating need to be recodified, and then taught. But not specifically targetted at date rape - to make it motivating to rexamine and relearn things, it should seem to have larger benefits.

Re sociopathy or whatever you want to call the pattern, there are a half-dozen movements that almost need to have a conference and compare notes. It's all the same shit.

"It may be too ambitious, but its almost like some form of the basic 'rules' of dating need to be recodified, and then taught. But not specifically targetted at date rape - to make it motivating to rexamine and relearn things, it should seem to have larger benefits."

This. The idea that we should be focused on sexual ethics, not just avoiding rape.

I don't agree with you on your point two. Discussing this stuff openly does tend to antagonize and upset people, and I don't think calling out rapes, like Lindsay is doing here, is an example of being needlessly antagonistic. The guys I know whose girlfriends manage to tell them about the rapes may have been "antagonized" at some point in rape discussions, but by the time people were able to come out to them about sexual assault experiences, it was because these people trusted them to listen, not to judge.

The problem here isn't just a failure to communicate between the sexes, it is a big lack of respect. When people that we respect identify a problem, even if it is outside of our experience, we listen to them. But many times, when women complain about sexual assault, street harassment, etc., the general public goes into full minimization mode, and denies that there is even a problem. This is a lack of respect, not merely a breakdown in communications.

Re: long-term loneliness and pain, I got that was your point, but I still don't care much. In the context of preventing rape, loneliness can take a back seat.

And I still refuse to accept that there is some kind of dichotomy that makes ethical sexual actors more lonely. My husband is one of the most sexually ethical people I know, and he has never wanted for company.

>some kind of dichotomy ...

There isn't. The problem is that the old traditions were flawed, but they were not replaced with anything workable, just pieces and a sea of anxiety people muddle through. There will always be exceptional people with high aptitude, but most need a workable set of traditions.

>calling out rapes, like Lindsay is doing here...

I agree, her original posts didn't seem needlessly antagonizing, the movie sends a shitty message to exactly the wrong target audience. It's the follow on discussions and the campaigns this links to that aren't always productive. A clever campaign would do the opposite of generating anxiety in the 90%+ of never-rapists, it would attract their interest with the promise of helping to resolve some of it.

I cannot make life easy for people who are not willing to do the work. There are some problems that a nice reframe and a glitzy pr campaign will do wonders for.

But there are others that require people to face some pretty ugly truths. This one fits in the latter category.

The problem isn't the message. The problem is getting people to listen to/deal with a message that we cannot sugar coat.

There are better and worse techniques (i.e., my husband is more effective with military dudes than I am, even though we've both served, I'm effective with male friends, because I can tell stories about myself and people I know, and they take me seriously because they are my friends). The personal is political, enit.

Yes, because applying for a court order to cull some eggs/sperm from a loved partner to have children is exactly the same as a horrible mall cop you hardly know raping you while you're unconscious. And I'm sure the process would be similar. :-/

Cry, cry, cry, its a mother******g movie. its not like is was based on actual events. There is so much insane stuff in this movie that its...well...insane. Any mall cop or real cop who did that kind of crap would be fired and in prison so f*****g fast. So lighten the f**k up mother******s

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