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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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When I initially heard about the scene, I felt a little sick in my stomach. But having watched the movie, and having seen the scene in context, it is not nearly as offensive as people are making it out to be. In no way is the film justifying date rape, it's merely illustrating Ronnie's delusions, and giving the audience an insight into Brandi's pathetic life - drinking herself into a stupor, popping pills and having sex with guys she finds repulsive.
I'm a girl, and I saw nothing offensive about the scene, and didn't get the sense that Jody Hill was in any way glorufying Ronnie's behaviour.

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