April 10, 2009

Truth, Consequences and Full-Frontal Nudity

So, uh, if you haven't heard yet, I really liked Observe and Report. While I patiently await the opportunity to see it again, thinking about it now I'm particularly struck by how everything about this movie seems to make more sense in retrospect. I mean, how brilliant is that poster? You take one glance at it at the multiplex and you can't help but complain--Christ, didn't I just see a Seth Rogen movie last week? And then you finally see the damned thing and take another look at the promotional material. The tagline perfectly captures the film's atmosphere and its frightening implications, and its minimalistic design doesn't really represent a straightforward introduction to its star so much as it resembles a wanted poster. Now all I can do is speculate on how much of the film was a product of Ronnie's fevered imagination. Those strange Yuen twins who serve as Ronnie's support team--nothing more than a surreal Lynchian fantasy?
Frankly, I'm still astounded that Rogen would be the one to carry the film with such natural understanding of what he represents in the movies today--the one to imply that the films we've all been laughing at over the last five years or so were informed by something simplistic and unhealthy. I looked back recently on some old reviews I wrote about the Judd Apatow flicks before my days at FFC, and realized how little the films' conservative agenda meant to me in the face of its quick-draw profanity. I figured they were saying something reasonably eloquent about the characters' basic immaturity and insecurity--and maybe they were. But then came Observe and Report, complete with a lead character who never, ever has to acknowledge how much of a maniac he is... and I was surprised to finally understand how little effort it took to coerce these characters into simply translating their immaturity and insecurity into something more socially acceptable. The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up both revolve around the idea that wanton irresponsibility will eventually lead to stable responsibility, right? The thing is that these movies want to impart to their audience that actions have consequences, but also that they're less severe than you think--the solution is to roll with the punches rather than try to affect real change in how you look at life. In passing the torch from Kevin Smith to Judd Apatow, you kid yourself into thinking that this brand of comedy is evolving, but no one's really learned anything since Clerks II and its ultimate message that you can be a hate-filled prick so long as you're a self-sufficient one.
It's really no different from any of the other lessons you can find in the family-friendly garbage that routinely infests theatres. See, the most infuriating thing about Paul Blart: Mall Cop is this idea that you can toss a lovable fuck-up into any scenario and comfortably pretend that none of it really matters. So why think twice when we give that lovable fuck-up a badge and more responsibility than he knows what to do with? He'll figure it out on his own, I'm sure. I said my piece about learning the follies of escapism on this blog in January, but what fascinates/terrifies me about these movies now is how the manufactured distractions are pitched as outright solutions to the problems from which they were supposed to distract you. Don't worry, Mom, your kid may be a profane idiot prone to bouts of self-destructive violence, but he just needs to beat his head against the wall a few more times before he settles down with some nice girl and has his two-point-five children. It's not a matter of learning from your mistakes--it's a vague Wile E. Coyote hope that maybe firing yourself from a giant longbow will eventually yield results that don't involve ramming your face into a telephone pole.
The comfort of maintaining that sense of cheap vulgarity is resulting in something less than savory. Out of the many, many things Zack Snyder fucked up in Watchmen, Doctor Manhattan's appearance wasn't one of them--and yet it's been a full month after the fact and I'm still hearing jokes about his "big blue dick." True enough that Watchmen was so completely atonal that it couldn't tell genuine pathos from a hole in the ground, but the end of the world looms overhead and you're still snickering about naked man-parts? What the fuck, man? It's already been well-documented in the early reviews, but I suspect that the full-frontal nudity in Observe and Report will dominate the conversation once everyone realizes how far and away this movie is from Paul Blart, and maybe that's a good thing. You know, what with that sudden revelation being the moment when the movie drops the very last hints of misinterpretation and confronts you with the full weight of its madness, dyed so thoroughly into the wool of its gross-out "humor" that no one can pretend that everything they've laughed at doesn't have consequences. Consequences that are going to require a little more introspection than you've given them up until now. At this early stage, the general response to the film looks like it's going to be a mixed one, which you can probably ascribe to its dearth of uncritical comedy. But at least it seems poised to jump-start a new conversation about the effects of what we watch on our general worldview--and maybe that's the best that anyone can ask for right now.


Anonymous said...

Wow, brilliant review and a brilliant blog post too, Mr Hugh.

Clint said...

Fantastic review. I recently watched Jody Hill's The Foot Fist Way despite the pull quote on the cover comparing it to Napoleon Dynamite (Danny McBride fan, I guess). I thought it was the antidote to ND... yeah, you can laugh at the characters, but should that be the appropriate response to such clearly unhinged behavior? I was truly a little terrified when the McBride and Hill characters took the two kids out of town on the roadtrip.

jer fairall said...

Wholly unrelated, but I just watched George Clooney's Leatherheads and it got me thinking: has there ever been a modern (as in, post-1970) attempt at a "screwball comedy" that *has* worked? Putting aside the Coen's quasi-entries into the genre (mostly because I can only ever think of Coen Bros. movies belonging to their own genre), I cannot think of a one.

Tony. said...

What's Up Doc

mehitchcock said...

I didn't read your review of "Observe and Report" because I thought I might be interested in seeing it first.
However your revue of your reasons for giving it four stars made it an absolutely must see and I quite look forward to reading your review afterwards.
How do you define "screwball comedy," Jer? If you mean a movie played totally straight with conviction that happens to be hilarious, I think Todd Solondz made several.
"I <3 Huckabees" and "Adam's Apples" seem to also apply.
If it also must be light, uplifting, and toothless, I'm stumped.

Bill C said...

Haven't seen O&R yet, but Dave Poland's pan is encouraging. ("Observe & Report is, after all the hype, Paul Blart: Mall Cop with less storytelling skill and a lot of “fucks,” cocks, implants (bobs [sic] and lips) and drug/alcohol abuse...I'm sure Mr. Hill is a great guy and it seems that talent is ready to work with him. His humor reminds me a bit of Dane Cook…")

As a general rule, the more that perpetually-backpedaling box-office-obsessed egomaniac hates something, the more likely it is that that something is a gem.

Alex Jackson said...

If Punch Drunk Love is a four-star film, I think Observe and Report warrants more three-and-a-half. Wasn't quite as blown away as Ian. I don't think that it's that nuanced and revolutionary. But yeah it's still a very good film and essentially everything he says is. The "lovable fuck-up" genre is given weight and the ending is genuinely subversive. The film is nicely misanthropic and R-rated.

There's a sense in which the negative reviews it has been getting suggest actual critical incompetence. Like they don't recognize much less appreciate when they have seen something different.

The Dave Poland review was pathetic.

Anonymous said...

I'd give you Armond White, Manohla Dargis and Stephanie Zacharek to counter your enthusiasm.

Anonymous said...

So according to, as Bill calls him, that perpetually-backpedaling box-office-obsessed egomaniac, "Observe and Report" sucks whereas "Speed Racer" ... is a brilliant, misunderstood masterpiece? Um, okay.

I stopped reading Poland (and his Mirror Universe doppleganger, Jeff Wells) some time ago. I just couldn't take their idiocy anymore.


theoldboy said...

I agree with Alex that it's more of a three and a half than a four. For it to be a four with me it would have to be a lot more aesthetically pleasing and maybe go just little bit further: Like when the Michael Pena character escapes the mall, I was thinking/hoping Ronnie was semi-conscious in the back seat (Hill sort of frames it as a POV) and Pena was going to take him on a kind of surreal Frank Booth joyride.

Jason said...

(Semi-spoilers ahead.) theoldboy, while I agree with you that I was thinking/hoping Ronnie was semi-conscious in that scene, and I would like to see that Frank Booth-ian joyride, I don't think it would have helped the film. It may even have hurt the pacing, in retrospect. That preceding scene, when Dennis reveals himself as a crook to Ronnie, is pretty much key to understanding Ronnie's rationale in Observe's final third -- it firmly establishes both Ronnie's hypocrisy (his coked-out drunken rampage against some harmless skateboarders vs. Dennis's thieving) in the name of, and his unwavering devotion to, a line he believes Shouldn't Be Crossed. Immediately following Dennis's escape comes the other big character moment for the film's second half, when Ronnie flatly declares that catching the flasher "is [his] one last shot at redemption." (Emphasis only partially mine.) The moment is as pathetic as it is disturbing, and these moments together completely foreshadow the "climax" of the film.

In that sense, and knowing Ronnie's not going to be swayed by Dennis's reasoning or actions, what could an extended, Lynchian nightmare joyride section add to this part of the film? What could be said or done here that's any more uncomfortable than the moments listed above? And what would we be sacrificing, in terms of character development or pacing, for such a moment?

Also, not to impugn your or Alex's opinions of the film, but what is the relatable difference between a three-and-a-half star film and a four star film? Especially when your rationale for docking points comes down to aesthetics or things that don't appear within the film proper? I don't mean this to sound sarcastic; I'm genuinely interested.

Also also, to the second anonymous poster: If Armond White is your counter-argument, than you have no counter-argument. Period.

Patrick said...

So what about the infamous date rape? What Jezebel, for example, is writing about.

Does the fact that both Rogen and Faris think it's okay and even edgy-funny mean that everything you noted as subversive in this film isn't, in fact, meant to be subversive but actually just funny? And would that make a difference, if the intent of the film was another gross comedy, but was taken too far by accident?

Patrick said...

Second link: Tiger Beadown

Alex Jackson said...

On the difference between three-and-a-half and four: Yes, I do feel a little embarassed that I take this so seriously. Four stars means I'll buy it on DVD, three-and-a-half means that I won't but I'll go to revival screenings or watch it again if it comes on TV. Generally, three-and-a-half is more conventional and less heavy than four stars and will not be quite as rewarding on repeated viewings.

On the rape scene: I am extremely defensive about this.

Does the fact that both Rogen and Faris think it's okay and even edgy-funny mean that everything you noted as subversive in this film isn't, in fact, meant to be subversive but actually just funny? And would that make a difference, if the intent of the film was another gross comedy, but was taken too far by accident?Contradictions-- they cannot think that the date rape is both "okay" and "edgy funny". It would not be "edgy funny" if it was actually OK. If the film were really trying to establish date rape as normal and acceptable, the joke wouldn't be shocking and if it weren't shocking it wouldn't be funny.

Shock humor is the exception to ethical rules that proves them.

The punchline dulls the edge and makes it palatable to a mass audience, but I don't think it excuses the scene or turns it into truly consensual sex. It is integral to the film that she wakes up and gives her "consent" since Ronnie needs to think that they actually had consensual sex. If she never woke up, he cannot NOT think that he was raping her.

Intent is as a gross-out comedy, but was taken too far by accident? If there were intent there is no accident. And I mean, who the fuck cares what the intent was. Point of the matter is that Observe and Report pushes the black comedy and lovable loser genres to the point where they snap and break and enter the realm of dark drama.

I take it you haven't seen the film Patrick?

Patrick said...

Nah. Since I'm a German, I can only see most movies roughly the same time if I see it as a badly handycam pirated copy. :-)

it's just I happened to read a couple of blogs where this was addressed, and I wondered. If you click the second link, I also posted a sort of reverse question (with a link to the FFC review) on the feminist side of the discussion.

Patrick said...

Oh, and also I don't give a rat's ass about intent (unless I'm talking about the people behind the work, not the work itself), but there are those who think differently. That's why I asked.

Although, now that I think about it... making a bad film whilst reaching for greatness is, to me, a lesser crime than making shit and not trying at all, so perhaps intent does play a role for me?

Rick said...

I agree with Alex that it's more of a three and a half than a four. For it to be a four with me it would have to be a lot more aesthetically pleasing...So would you only give Synecdoche 3 1/2 for the same reason?

theoldboy said...

So would you only give Synecdoche 3 1/2 for the same reason?No, because Synecdoche hits me where I live and Observe and Report does not.

Jefferson said...

I actually tried that anonymous URL above, thinking it was relevant. Fuck you, adspam.

Bill C said...

Shitcanned it, Jefferson; thanks for the heads-up.

Anonymous said...

On a related fucked up, sick, violent and darkly humoured note, is it wrong to be looking forward to Crank 2?

Paul S. said...

Re: State of Play

No mention of the original, (far) superior British mini-series?

There were two things that made the mini-series so great:
- It's "Britishness", and everything that entails, which set it apart from the typical American media/government redundancies.
- It's 6-hour length that let the characters and story really breath and feel somewhat real.

You take these two things away, and you're left with something that has no use to anyone.

The Kid In The Front Row said...

Great blog; really impressive. Got me thinking about Apatow's film in a completely different light. Good work!.

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