Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Observe and Report (2009)

Jody Hill is a director who wholeheartedly doesn’t give a damn about whether his characters are likable. This stance was arguably the downfall of his first film, The Foot Fist Way, which heaped so much venom on its hero, a wannabe kung fu master, that it became downright tedious in its viciousness. Then came the excellent HBO TV series Eastbound and Down, on which Hill served as a writer and sometime director, which took a similar approach but added in equal amounts of pathos and a more experienced Danny McBride to help create one of the funniest egotists in recent TV memory. Observe and Report, which chronicles bipolar mall cop Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) in his struggle to get his life together and hunt down a serial flasher, is an amusingly uneven hodgepodge of Hill’s two previous projects. Its highs are soaring (in more ways than one, considering the different controlled substances characters ingest in heroic doses), but like its main character, it’s also got some serious issues.

The film has a great cast, especially Celia Watson as Ronnie’s perpetually drunk mom, and some seriously good set pieces, but tonally it’s all over the place. In the early running Hill and company are deliberately testing the limits of the audience’s threshold for dark humor (even the most hardcore comedies usually steer clear of characters slamming heroin and engaging in borderline date rape), and for a while, it’s all a bit too messy to be as funny as it should. But this is exactly the territory that Hill likes to deal in, so it’s almost not surprising that around the ¾ mark things get so ridiculous that the tone of the movie seems to swing back around the dial again to reach a level of absurdity that Will Ferrell would be proud to call his own. This shift is abrupt enough that it definitely drains the film of a lot of the off the wall creepy momentum it had early on. Still, jarring as it is, you are almost relieved that you finally get to laugh a bit. I would have preferred for Hill to have either made a unapologetically dark character study or an Anchorman-style comedy, but I can’t deny that some of the film’s most memorable moments are a mix of the two, and by the time Barnhardt faces off in hand-to-hand combat against a legion of angry cops led by Ray Liotta (!) while armed only with a flashlight, you sort of have to admit that Observe and Report has found a way to be both funny and completely amoral all at the same time. This might not be enough to keep every viewer engaged, as the critical uproar over the film showed, but even the movie’s detractors would probably admit that the players here are working with a fairly high degree of difficulty considering their intended audience. That, along with the fact that Hill has proven that he’s still not the least bit afraid of alienating half his viewers in any given scene, makes this a film that I have to admit I have an odd amount of respect for.

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