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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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Wow. I sure as hell wouldn't want to go on a date with Mitchforth.

I don't know the particular one you're thinking of offhand, aeroman, but you're right, there are a number of debates in meta-ethics to which this kind of thing is relevant - one that comes to mind immediately is the internalism/externalism debate about the relationship of desires to reasons for action.

Bruce, this culture does NOT have "zero tolerance for violence against women", and women are NOT exempt due to gender.

I realize that you are far from alone in your beliefs; I'm wondering how so many men are so out of touch with the reality of women's lives.

I wouldn't drink around Mitchforth either. Apparently it means you wanna fuck, whether you're on a date or not.


Unconscious is a clear bright line. Anything someone does to an unconscious person is a sexual assault. But severely intoxicated and conscious is a different situation.

I have a friend who picked up a girl in a bar in the East Village. He was stupid drunk. He took her back to his apartment, she gave him a handjob, he fell asleep in the middle of it, and when he woke up, she was gone, and so was his wallet and his Breitling wristwatch.

He didn't know her name, and couldn't remember what she looked like to describe her to the police. I told him he was an idiot, the watch made him look like a douchebag anyway, and that he should consider himself lucky she hadn't given him herpes.

Was I blaming the victim? I don't know. I think he was stupid and I have a hard time mustering sympathy for his situation (which wasn't that bad; he had an insurance rider on the watch).

I generally don't have a problem not passing out drunk with people who might shove a dildo up my ass or rob me blind or kill me in my sleep. That doesn't mean that women who drink or dress provocatively, or put themselves in dangerous situations are implicitly consenting to sex.

I've also been hit on by other guys, and a couple of months ago, a dude got really pushy and aggressive when I wouldn't let him buy me a drink, and he kept insisting that I do a Jaeger shot with him. My friends and I finally left and went to another bar to get away from this guy.

A gay friend told me later that there is a subculture of gay guys who try to hook up with guys who identify straight, and they're successful pretty often. Usually a lot of alcohol is involved, and drugs sometimes as well. Some people would argue that these guys are serial man-rapists. I think you can generally avoid going home with a guy unless you want to go home with a guy. But maybe it's like Ronnie says, and you only feel safe until somebody puts something in you that you don't want.

To clarify, I don't think my friend consented to being robbed, but I have no problem saying that he should have been more proactive in avoiding a situation like that.

I think the straight guys who hook up with other guys are almost certainly consenting.

SKM>Bruce, this culture does NOT have "zero tolerance for violence against women", and women are NOT exempt due to gender.

I recognize that's often the reality, vs the theory. But try an experiment. In a sitcom, a guy punches another guy with no warning; that would fit within many story lines. Try the scene with a women; it wouldn't even be allowed on the air, except perhaps as a "not funny" moral lesson.

Or take a group of educated young adults talking about life experiences, and the (fairly new, I grant you) taboo against violence against women is in force. If any level of violence occurs by a male hand, that person is severely sanctioned. But the same is not true re young men, at all. A young male is largely expected to "defend himself" or be ridiculed. I tried the topic many times with grad-student level identified-feminists. They just about never saw the contradiction. It was almost like any individual male deserved to be exposed to violence, for the crimes against women of a small minority of males.

Mitchforth, you're treating this movie as if it were trial testimony. What you're doing is as naive as if you were to jump up in the middle of the film and yell, "Don't take the pills, Brandi!"

The point is that the filmmakers decided to create the Brandi character in a certain way, so that (i) the Brandi character is made to be as unsympathetic a possible, and (ii) events that look a whole lot like rape can be argued away as not-rape.

In this movie, there is one sexually active woman and she is portrayed as a horrible human being and punished for her behavior. Lindsay is arguing that the filmmakers do this intentionally, precisely in order to permit the target audience to laugh at her without a pang of empathy or self-doubt. What a real woman who acted like Brandi would expect or "deserve" is not a particularly interesting question in the context of this discussion.

No actual person gets falling-down drunk on a date. Brandi and Ronnie are grotesque cartoons.

The whole argument is a question of what sort of contextual evidence indicates that sex is consensual, and about making the point that a person who behaves in a preposterous way still doesn't deserve to be raped.

Moderately more plausible is a man and a woman meeting in a bar or at a paty where they're both already very drunk and leaving together. This is the archetypal "hook-up" or "one-night stand." It's an exceedingly common and heavily booze-fueled situation. Under many of the definitions of terms discussed here and in general, they're all rapes.

This is really stretching the definition of what is supposed to be a violent crime to re-engineer the accepted norms of sexual behavior.


Male-on-male rapists in movies usually die. (Perhaps not in American History X, but there were a lot of them, but in Deliverance, unless it is like the book, and in Pulp Fiction.) I would just as heavily critize a movie that depicted male-on-male (or female-on-male) rape in a manner that suggested that no rape happened or the rape was "okay."

That, at least, is my issue with the movie, although Majikthise and the others can speak for themselves.

It is first degree rape in some jurisdictions, and it would have been a good teaching moment if something were done to recognize the fact that it was rape. Nothing was.

Re: men instigating/the value of yes--a man instigating or making the first move in a sexual encounter DOES NOT MEAN that he does not have to wait for some kind of consent (a yes, a physical response showing consent, etc.) The same is true when women instigate/make the first move.

I think there is a lot of tolerance for violence against women in movies. If I stopped liking movies with gratuitous rape scenes, that are used to advance a male character, not the female victim, I'd have to give up on a lot of movies. I seriously doubt that one in ten rape victims in movies are men, even though one in ten actual rape victims are. Quentin Tarantino at least tries to see rapes of women through the victim's eyes, but films that don't even make that effort include "The Usual Suspects," "Mad Max," that whole series of movies made in the 70's with that avenger guy, . . . anyone else care to add?

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.

I've noticed something else in this movie that also disturbs me. The implication that people in mental distress, maybe even mentally ill, are always violent. This is a harmful stereotype and is one of the most common forms of stigma.

>a man instigating or making the first move in a sexual encounter DOES NOT MEAN that he does not have to wait for some kind of consent...

Agree completely. I'm just saying that a lot of the male anxiety you're seeing in comments here may be fears/paranoia that forms of clear consent might be very hard to explain if it every came to it.

Also, in the case of at least one poster, he seems to not believe that a young women could get so drunk as to pass out at the end of the date. IE, you may not always be arguing with the problem men, just men (falsely) worried about seeing yet more complication to an already difficult and broken set of courting & dating rules.

>I've noticed something else in this movie that also disturbs me. The implication that people in mental distress, maybe even mentally ill, are always violent....

This is part of what I'm trying to get at. In many cases of shitty male behavior, especially where he's too ignorant or messed up to even recognize he's committing a wrong, the best response could be counselling or informing his family he needs help, rather than the police (stalking is the prime example here). Think stupid, not evil (vs this thread which is dealing with ignorant).

>patriarchy hurts men too...

Gender roles are a basket case now, and no matter how disfunctional it is on the female side, I'd argue it's dangerously worse on the male side. There is no visible movement that deals with that well.


Not to threadjack, but if you're interested in masculinity as such, I recommend Brucer Jenner for starters. There is a movement.

But the point is, the bigger issue, on a thread about a RAPE VICTIM, is the victim herself, and how the victimization is portrayed in pop culture (because people who tend to laugh at these jokes tend to be more likely to accept and engage in this sort of violence, they should be called out.)

Yes, but I'm saying that to solve the problem of date-rape you may need to get involved in the whole pattern behind it. For example, *neither* character even recognizes the act as a form of rape. So it probably can't be isolated cleanly. Lindsey's review to her credit had hints of where the movie could have gone to serve that end.

And treating it as a 1st degree crime of rape full-stop shuts down your ability to influence the guys in question. If you want them to listen, you have to define the mistake in terms that they can accept judging their past behavior by, and realistically change.

Date-rape is an example of a slightly softened term that such a guy could at least in his head recognize. Then apparently couching consent in terms of a formal question, that's an error that's been happening for two decades now at least, and is frustrating to watch. At least recognize what real nonverbal consent usually looks like at the outset (ie, both people are participating, etc).

I'm not saying you're wrong. Just that the script for educating and debating with the target audience is far from ideal.

Also, the equivelent of a women being violently raped is not a man being raped. It's a man being beaten to the point of hospitalization. The common factor is establishing dominance, crushing the spirit of the victim.

Which also says there are two different kinds of rape, acts of violence/dominance, and acts of stupidity/callousness. Stopping the two types will need different approaches.

I disagree entirely with your framing, Bruce.

I have no interest in convincing criminals that what they are doing is sorta okay, or caused by society's mistreatment of them, or not as evil as jumping out of the bushes. The harm done to the victims tells me that this is not so, for one. I have an interest in convincing all people that women are full human beings, that sex is about affirmative consent and mutual participation, not a chit that one party gets from another, by hook or crook. Not a zero-sum game. (I am not ascribing these beliefs to you, but to the rapists whose confusion you suggest we work to alleviate.)

Other than that, I think you are bringing up interesting points, but I don't want to get into them too far b/c they seem to stray from the thread.

And the law does not couch consent in terms of yes or no. People tend to do so. Because they don't get it. The court system fully recognizes non-verbal forms of consent, in this and other contexts.

Mitchforth, WHY are you shifting the issue from one of morality to one of legality? It's a work of fiction, fer chrissakes. I don't care whether the character would be convicted in a criminal trial.

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.

What does legal procedure have to do with this? Why are you changing the subject? If I told you the plot of Chinatown, would you demand that I produce DNA test results showing that Faye Dunaway's character's daughter is in fact her sister and then huff and puff about the father character's innocence until proven guilty? What is this crap?

Rape is an immoral act of violence. It would be an immoral act of violence even if there were no law. Enough with the derailing.

Re the motives, thought processes of date-rapists, there's probably too much theorizing in general. Back to Lindsey's self-identification as an "empricist", somewhere there's has to be (or should be) actual research about it. Who date rapes, are most of the acts by repeat offenders, etc.

Re having sympathy for criminals, the idea is more that to act preventatively you need to get into the head of the guy at risk of committing the crime. As a practical matter it doesn't matter if he morally deserves sympathy for his attitude.

Also, if you get the guys who are merely objecting due to miscommunication of the issue onside (ie don't appear to be making normal dating even more difficult), they're best positioned to enforce behavior norms on their friends.

Question: I've seen a few reviewers make the case that this attempts to be a "dark comedy" about mental illness (which is its own can o' beans). What did you think, Lindsay?

I'll look forward to reading your review, Lauren.

Ronnie's bipolar illness is important to the plot in several respects. It's the reason he can't join the police force, not to mention the reason he has drugs to give to Brandi. And the real mayhem starts after he goes off his meds. Also, some commenters have suggested that key scenes in the movie are actually Ronnie's nightmares or fantasies. (If they are, they aren't very well-marked.)

I wouldn't say that the movie is about mental illness, per se. It's more of a plot device than a major subject in itself.

Wow. And [rape apologists] at HufPo are TOTALLY sure that NO ONE could think that he was a sympathetic character (thus making it most definitely ok that he rapes, 'cause "hey, it's not like he's a sympathetic character who we're supposed to identify with at all"). I suppose they should see Mitch "Poor Ronnie doesn't take advantage; everyone takes advantage of us Ronnie!" and his explanations of why this is all a-ok.

Seriously. It's a scene depicting a rape. Get over yourselves.

I don't know the particular one you're thinking of offhand, aeroman, but you're right, there are a number of debates in meta-ethics to which this kind of thing is relevant - one that comes to mind immediately is the internalism/externalism debate about the relationship of desires to reasons for action.

I definitely think this is the set of issues regarding which I learned the hypo I am thinking of. I wish I could remember it. Thanks!

I know which puzzle you're thinking of.

I think the setup goes something like this: An eccentric telepathic billionaire offers you $1 million dollars to drink a poison that will make you very sick for 24 hours but won't kill you. In order to get the money, you have to fully intend to drink the poison at midnight, even though you know that you will still get the money at 12:01 without drinking the poison. (The setup isn't quite right, but this is general gist.) The question is whether you can intend to do something that you know you're not going to do.

Here it is, Kavka's toxin puzzle.

"That a lot of women are stuck in a hellish loop where rape seems inevitable may be true, but that doesn't make it less rape or less horrifying."
What if you make a film about that loop, and that horror? What if someone made a film called "No Means Yes" about two miserable destroyed characters?

The issue for art is that the film at this moment treats the female character with more contempt than the male character. That's the cop out. If she'd woken up and began yelling: "fuck me you pathetic limp-dicked piece of shit!" then they would have been on an equal footing and at that "darker place."
But in fact they wouldn't have been equal. That's the hellish loop. And description, even honest description, is still reinforcement. And "fuck me you pathetic limp-dicked piece of shit!" is standard dialogue in a porn film. But that darker place can be funny. Rape can be funny for the same suicide can be funny. Death can be funny. Terror can be hilarious.
Laughter is anxiety

The question is whether this film bring us to the point where we should allow moral condemnation to override respect for the art. I would say "yes." But then I would say the same thing about Waltz with Bashir

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