SXSW Review: ‘Observe and Report’

03.18.09 8 years ago 4 Comments

AP Photo/Jack Plunkett

Something’s happening in comedy right now, something really special, and I feel genuinely lucky to have watched it unfold for the last few years.

Anyone who just refers to this new explosion of comedy talent as “that Judd Apatow stuff,” as a guy in line in front of me did the other night, isn’t paying attention.  Yes, Judd’s been a big part of that, but it’s richer and stranger than just his work, and the talent pool is deep enough that everyone’s bringing something different to the table.

Consider the North Carolina Posse, for example.  When David Gordon Green released his acclaimed early films “George Washington” and “All The Real Girls,” I doubt anyone who saw them was thinking about them as calling cards for a huge comedy career.  But after seeing “Pineapple Express” and his episodes of “East Bound and Down,” a part of me hopes he never goes back to working in drama again.  “East Bound,” if you’re not aware of it, is an HBO series that finishes its soon-to-be-legendary run this Sunday night.  Co-created by Danny McBride, Jody Hill, and Ben Best, it stars McBride as Kenny Powers, an ex-major league baseball player who is in free fall in his personal life, but who always manages to remain gloriously, idiotically unaware of his own ridiculousness.

That’s actually a signature of the work of Jody Hill, another big player in this North Carolina mob.  I find myself more and more impressed by each fresh project from these guys.  “The Foot Fist Way” made my top ten list in 2007, the year before Paramount Vantage finally released it theatrically.  I felt bad about that, though, because by the time Vantage finally put it out, they’d messed with it.  The cut that made my list was the festival cut of the film.  It was shaggier, meaner, with all sorts of rough edges.  The eccentric details are what made the film great, and I was frustrated by the theatrical cut as a result.

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With “East Bound and Down,” that comic sensibility seems unleashed, absolutely without restraint.  It’s cringe comedy of a particularly pointed nature.  A dance sequence in the second episode gave me an anxiety attack, for god’s sake.  Of course, it’s an HBO series, so they get to go incredibly dark if they want to.  It doesn’t have to make any commercial concessions.  But witht his new film, “Observe and Report,” Hill’s working for Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures.  Surely he’s not going to be allowed to push things even further…

… right?

This movie is a minor miracle, an original and unfiltered dark comedy that demolishes the mainstream-friendly comic persona that Seth Rogen’s been cultivating the last few years.  It’s convulsively funny, disturbingly violent, and uncomfortably carnal and intimate at times.  Ronnie Barnhardt (Rogen) is the head of security at a mall where a flasher has started terrorizing the parking lot while random after-hour break-ins have been going on for some time now.  He’s also bi-polar, delusional, and just plain creepy, a rippling mama’s boy on heavy medication.  And the film’s not a redemption story.  It’s not about how Ronnie sorts out his problems and eventually becomes a happy or a better person.  It’s a slow slide from bad to worse, and that’s exactly what makes this an instant cult classic.

It’s “The Big Lebowski.”  I remember when I saw “Lewbowski” for the first time at a test screening, people were angry at the film.  They thought it was terrible, weird.  “No story” was a big complaint afterwards.  And they’re right.  “Lebowski” is almost proudly anti-narrative… it ties its central mystery in knots, by design.  “O&R” isn’t a film that depends on some exceptionally clever narrative structure… it’s more about character and a moment.  And like “Lebowski,” this is a film that’s going to enter the geek lexicon almost immediately.  I’ve already heard several people quoting it while walking around Austin yesterday, and it doesn’t surprise me at all.  The film is awash in the poetry of delusion.  Ronnie’s a great character, and every scene of the film suggests real life lived.  These characters spill off the edges of the frame.   I never felt like I was watching characters that were designed to drive this particular story.  Instead, they feel real, like we’re just checking in on them at this moment, and this is just what they happen to be up to.

Take Ronnie’s relationship with his mother, played by the great Celia Weston.  She’s a barely-functioning alcoholic, foul-mouthed and unnervingly blunt, but there’s never a moment when it seems like she’s anything less than genuinely affectionate towards Ronnie.  He’s a mess, she’s clearly a big part of why, but Hill never makes that the butt of the joke, and he also doesn’t try to turn this observation of character into a “dramatic arc” that has to be satisfied.  Don’t expect Mom to get better or Ronnie to suddenly save her from her own worst tendancies.  The film isn’t trying to score cheap laughs by looking down at them.  Instead, the laughs come from looking at them without flinching.  That’s where Jody Hill has a real gift.

Ronnie’s absolutely crazy about Brandi (Anna Faris), a vaguely rotten cosmetics counter clerk from one of the stores in the mall.  And I mean taking-pills-and-seeing-a-doctor crazy, but she doesn’t know that.  When she gets flashed by the pervert, it gives Ronnie a chance to spend some time with her, and it also brings him into contact with Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta), the hard-nosed cop assigned to the case.  The wildest thing about this film is that essentially, the entire script is built in the rhythm of a manic-depressive’s emotional cycle.  Because Ronnie is spending time dealing with the cops and because Brandi pays attention to him for longer than five minutes at a time, he starts to feel like he’s getting everything he’s ever wanted.  All of his dreams are falling into line, and he feels so good that he goes off his medication.  So what do you think happens when everything turns again and suddenly Ronnie starts to see the world the way it really is?

The film is overstuffed with great comedy performances.  Faris makes her character almost completely without redeeming characteristics, Liotta plays a giant scary douchebag, and I love that no one seems to have mentioned to Ray that he’s in a comedy.  It makes him funnier that he’s playing it as 100% scary without a wink.  If there’s a breakout star in the film, it’s Michael Pena, who most people know in dramatic work like “World Trade Center” and “Crash”.  He plays Dennis, one of Ronnie’s security staff, and he’s so immersed in the performance that the first time I saw footage, I didn’t recognize him.  I thought he was someone who looked sort of like Pena… only much, much, much funnier.  It’s an amazing bit of character work, and a real announcement of just what sort of range Pena has.  Collette Wolf, Ben Best, Patton Oswalt, Jesse Plemons… they all do good work, and every character makes an impression.  Even Aziz Ansari of Human Giant fame comes in and kills in a few quick scenes.

There’s a line in the film where Ben Best shakes his head and says, “I thought this was going to be funny, but it’s really just kinda sad.” I suspect some people may feel the same way when they stagger out of the theater, but if you walk in aware of what kind of film it is, it’s a powerhouse. If you think full frontal male nudity, “Old Boy”-style asskickings, date rape, and elderly incontinence are hilarious, you are in for a treat.

Warner Bros. releases the film April 10th, and we’ll have some outstanding interviews here on the site in the days leading up to release.

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