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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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I've gone out with guys, had seven drinks, and not boinked them. And they haven't tried to screw me. Probably because we both understood we were platonic friends, and I was in the mood to get a little toasted. Drinking in a man's presence =/= consent to sex.

Also, there is something really wrong with this:

"Look, if she says 'no,' and he does it anyway, then it's rape.

If she doesn't say 'no,' it might be hard for a guy like Ronnie or a jury to understand that she does not consent. "

It is not about whether or not she says no--it is about whether or not she ever says yes. If she doesn't say yes, indicate yes through her actions, or isn't in a state for her yes or her actions to be binding (i.e., if she's too drunk for her signature on a contract to count, which she clearly was), she did not consent.

Do drunk people ever really want to have sex, such that they don't feel abused if sex is done to them while they are too wasted to consent? Sure. Do drunk people ever really want to sell their car, such that they're not going to take steps to invalidate a contract they signed while they were drunk? Also yes. But if you want to (a) behave ethically and (b) not end up in a legally untenable situation, boinking new partners who are wasted beyond the point of consent isn't a good idea.

In this movie, she is never shown saying or indicating yes. It is really problematic that people are assuming that she did so. It suggests that women have to prove they did not consent, and stealing from someone else's idea (Twisty's? Melissa McEwan's Catharine MacKinnon's) that women are in a perpetual state of yes.

That's not to say, btw, that having sex is like selling a car, I am just making the point that the legal consent standard isn't some protectionist nonsense aimed a the poor widdle women, it is a general standard about consent and its impairment through intoxicants.

Obviously, if a person is incapable of consenting due to, say, drunkenness, there can have been no consent, and what is happening is an assault.

The perpetrator of the assault might claim that he honestly believed she was consenting and therefore lacked the mental state required to be guilty of a crime. Canadian criminal law, at least, requires a person claiming honest belief in consent to "take reasonable steps, in the circumstances known to [him] at the time, to ascertain that the complainant was consenting", and the honest belief in consent cannot have arisen from willful blindness or recklessness.

I haven't seen the movie, but from what I gather the Rogen character does not take reasonable steps in the circumstances to ascertain consent, or was willfully blind or reckless as to whether Brandi was consenting.

What if the shoe is on the other foot?

Let's say a woman brings her really drunk date home. While he's passed out in her bed, she decides it would be fun to do him with a strap-on. Can she just have at it? Should she be allowed to assume that he consented to the "bend over boyfriend" treatment because he took her out on a date? It's fair to assume he took her out because he wanted to have sex with her, right?

Let's say he's semi-conscious and the woman asks whether he wants to have sex and he mutters some vague assent. Is that consent to nail him with a dildo, when it's unclear whether he understands what saying "yes" means in this context.

A women who takes advantage of a guy in this position is a rapist, just like a guy who sticks his penis into a woman who obviously doesn't know what's happening to her.

We might also think of Aristotle's account of voluntariness, involuntariness and non-voluntariness here, though, according to which if someone can be said to have done something only involuntarily it must be accompanied by pain or regret.

To clarify - to have done something only involuntarily, the person must feel pain or regret after the fact, knowing what has happened, etc.

There is no way to tell whether Brandi is an alcoholic, or whether she just takes full advantage of someone picking up her bar bill.

So? In neither case should Ronnie expect anything in the way of sex. Jesus christ, this is infantile.

"The fact that she got voluntarily drunk at his expense is certainly indicative of what she expected to happen."

I thought that was pretty creepy. Particularly, because as other commentators have pointed out, heavy drinking indicates absolutely nothing in particular at all.

Then I read this:

"You posit that the fact that she is very drunk signals that the guy should not make a sexual advance. this is contrary to the prevailing social norm, however."

That's just really disturbing.

I don't see how the distinction solves the problem.

Rape can be involuntary or non-voluntary.

How the victim feels about the incident isn't a good standard for what happened. If you have sex with someone who doesn't know what's happening to them, it's just moral luck whether they're traumatized, indifferent, or pleased. Part of the reason it's wrong is because you have no idea how they're going to feel.

Rape is a crime. Every element of a crime must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and someone accused of a crime is presumptively innocent.

The lack of consent is a necessary element and must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Similarly, the defendant's culpable mental state must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

That's why the surrounding context of an alleged date rape is scrutinized closely.

An unconscious person cannot consent. Continuing to have sex with an unconscious person is rape. There is no defense that would apply to continuing to "have sex" with an unconscious person. No reasonable person could believe that having sex with an unconscious person involves consent.

If you disagree with me, cite some law.

Mitch, if a drunk male date passes out in a woman's bed, is she allowed to shove a dildo up his ass without asking? Because obviously if he went out with her, he consented to sex.

Didn't think so.

So, because a woman gets raped after being alone with a man, suddenly it is a "date" and worthy of the cutsey title "date rape."

Good to know that if I had ever been wrong about my male friends being rapists, my time hanging out/drinking with them would have become a "date" after the fact.

I agree that the distinction doesn't solve the problem, of course.

The fact that you don't know how someone is going to feel about it afterwards is no part of why it is wrong to rape him or her. The issue is respect for autonomy. To take a bizarre counterfactual example, it would still be wrong to have non-consensual sex with someone even if you knew to a certainty that your victim's life would contain more happiness overall as a result.

The only reason the distinction might be useful here is to show, if it does, that if a person subsequently endorses or authorizes what has happened to him, it is arguable that his autonomy is still whole. Consider that a doctor who, contrary to her patient's fully-informed decision, performs a certain medical treatment on the patient has still failed to respect the patient's autonomy and has committed an assault, even if (as the doctor expects) the patient subsequently recovers and feels like a million bucks. Contrast that with the case in which the patient is unconscious and cannot consent to the treatment, which is performed anyway, and endorses it when he wakes up: "Thank you, doctor, that's exactly what I would have wanted you to do." Maybe you think the second case's doctor is also guilty of an assault. I don't.

The question is why the same can't be true in the case of sexual assault (as I agree it is not). When this girl wakes up and says "Even though I wasn't aware of it a moment ago, you're doing exactly what I want", why is that not enough to render the sexual act consensual in the way that the patient's after-the-fact consent renders the treatment unproblematic? Can she consent retroactively the next morning (as the patient apparently can)? Why not?

It is tempting to resort to objective standards of what is reasonable. A reasonable patient would want his life saved, etc. And the criminal law might seem to take this route: as I explained above, at least in Canada, a person is required to take reasonable steps in the circumstances known him at the time to ascertain consent. But this goes to the state of mind of the perpetrator of the assault (mistaken belief in consent), and not to the actual lack of consent as part of the act itself, which is, as it should be, solely a function of what is going on in the mind of the complainant. The issue becomes why the relevant goings-on in the complainant's mind are limited to those taking place only during the sexual activity itself (as does not seem to be the case with assault generally).

So for example, if someone is vegetative and the spouse (gender neutral) wants to have children does for example pulling eggs to implant, or semen to fertilize constitute rape? That means lack of consciousness to consent?

Holy shit! Yes!!! How can you even ask that question?

... Brandi never indicates in any way thar Ronnie's advances are unwelcome.

Sexual timidity or passivity is not encouraged in men. A guy is expected to make the first move, and he generally tries to judge from his date's behavior and from recognized ritual or symbolic gestures, whether that advance will be received favorably. But some guys are dumb and some guys are socially inept, and Ronnie is both. If his affection is undesired, somebody needs to tell him.

The default is that a woman consents to sex unless she first says no? This is backwards as far as every person I know ... the default is that sex is non-consensual unless both people say yes.

As far as takes on "drunken girls" and sex, the scenes in 40-year-old virgin were much more original/creative and human -- e.g., when Steve Carrell's (sp?) character is encouraged to leave a bar with a drunken girl, she vomits on him and actually offers to have sex with him. His response, blinking through the vomit on his face, is -- No thanks. I probably deserved that.

Look, if she says "no," and he does it anyway, then it's rape.

If she doesn't say "no," it might be hard for a guy like Ronnie or a jury to understand that she does not consent.

Drinking does *not* imply consent. In fact, drinking to the point of impairment basically removes any ability to give meaningful consent.

If she's too drunk or drugged or both to even be capable of giving consent, then it's rape. Even if she orders the drinks or drugs herself. No matter how dangerous situation she creates for herself, it's *still* rape if he decides to take advantage of the situation.

"When this girl wakes up and says "Even though I wasn't aware of it a moment ago, you're doing exactly what I want", why is that not enough to render the sexual act consensual in the way that the patient's after-the-fact consent renders the treatment unproblematic? Can she consent retroactively the next morning"

If I steal all the money in your wallet and you later decide not to bother trying to get it back, does that mean I didn't *really* steal it?

"The lack of consent is a necessary element and must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt."

Are you seriously suggesting that the mere fact that a sex act has taken place means that the woman has to prove she DIDN'T say yes?

This only works if we believe that a woman's default setting is "yes", which is screwed up to say the least.


Yes, in a criminal trial, the defendant is entitled to a presumption of complete innocence, andthe full burden of proof rests on the prosecution to prove every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

"The lack of consent is a necessary element and must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt."

Are you seriously suggesting that the mere fact that a sex act has taken place means that the woman has to prove she DIDN'T say yes?

This only works if we believe that a woman's default setting is "yes", which is screwed up to say the least.

The lack of consent is part of the actus reus of sexual assault and like every other element must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt by the prosecutor. It does not even begin to follow that anyone's default setting is "yes". It just means that if the presumption of innocence is to be displaced and an accused person incarcerated for sexual assault, his guilt - consisting in part of an absence of consent to whatever he or she is alleged to have done - must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In most cases of sexual assault it is easy to infer the absence of consent and any consent-related issues are to do with the accused person's mistaken belief in consent.


"When this girl wakes up and says "Even though I wasn't aware of it a moment ago, you're doing exactly what I want", why is that not enough to render the sexual act consensual in the way that the patient's after-the-fact consent renders the treatment unproblematic? Can she consent retroactively the next morning"

If I steal all the money in your wallet and you later decide not to bother trying to get it back, does that mean I didn't *really* steal it?

What's the distinguishing feature you're pointing to with your example? Even if you're right, it just means you've found another example of a case calling for the same kind of explanation as the case we're examining.

Mitch, do you think that woman has the right to sodomize an unconscious man who passes out in her bed? Does drinking and dating imply consent if the incapacitated party is a guy? Does consent extend to whatever sexual activities the other person(s) wants to inflict?

Wow, mitchforth really doesn't want to address that strap-on question, does he?

It is very clear that Brandi was too intoxicated to consent legally. All the defenses, arguments, and parsing here in this thread are just apologism.

>actually ask at midnight...

First - there is a bit of a communication issue here. Since when does anybody formally ask? How fun is that? Not very. In reality, the closest things usually get to "formal consent" is active participation or nonverbal signals, which in an established relationship can get pretty subtle.

Also, regarding the game of male-applies-pressure / female-plays-coy, this is a script that by and large people practically have to follow at first. There's a more general issue here of gender roles, that's much messier to resolve than drawing lines in the sand.

In this culture, males who are not in at some level aggressive and pushy at first, mostly wind up alone. Not just sexually, in general human terms. A spiral of emotional isolation, alienation, and then inward focused (depression, addiction, self harm) or outward focused (stalking, etc) aggression and reduced social awareness results.

The culture teaches that weak males have no role and deserve no sympathy, so if things go wrong you wind up with a male not in his best state of mind or self-control, but knowing that some form of social assertiveness is needed to gain the respect required to get any sort of emotional intimacy, from men or women. I haven't seen the movie, but from the above it appears to be partially about Ronnie following one of these spirals, the more dangerous kind.

Throw in zero tolerance for violence against women (while random violence against other males is still "funny" and sanctioned), with a requirement for aggression in most of the culture, and you have human disasters waiting to happen. Men walking a tightrope of behavior, suspended over an emotional abyss. There are sub cultures that are an exception, but this is the background for the majority of young men.

For myself, finally looking old enough that I didn't have to worry about being "jumped" and winding up with a brain injury was a huge relief. But young women I mentioned that fear to, *especially self described feminists* and even when other men backed me up, thought it was pathetic. That men who were randomly attacked didn't deserve support or sympathy - that was just life. That generates a lot of resentment that isn't allowed to be expressed - as in, why am I exposed to violence I play no part in, while only you are exempt due to gender? Yet the 10% of men that behave that way probably overlap greatly with date rapists. They're the same set of problem men, who failed to navigate the conflicting cultural requirements.

While I agree that he's committed a form of rape, it isn't first degree, though it is an excellent "teaching example". But there's also something really messed up (nearly impossible) about the roles expected of men in this culture, and a better realized version of the movie might have made a good morality tale that way. That's where the movie seems to have really failed. It gave approval to Ronnie's idiot fantasy path out of his shitty reality.

Just because you think at 9pm that you're going to want to have sex at midnight doesn't mean that, when it comes down to brass tacks, you're still going to want to do it.

Isn't there a famous meta-ethics thought experiment that hinges on this distinction, except also poison somehow is involved, or eating or something like related? Not joking...

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