The Continued Relevance of Observe and Report

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Observe and Report which was released in 2009 feels more relevant at capturing our current anxieties than it might of realized seven years ago. Since then we live in a post Trayvon Martin America that has brought vigilantism, gun control and police brutality to the forefront of the public consciousness. Not that these problems didn’t exist then, you can still sense remnants of Columbine or any horrific event of someone unstable in possession of a weapon as the backdrop of this film. It’s strange to think these elements turn into a smart dark comedy but not a surprise that no one wanted to see it. There’s a reason it was enormously out grossed by Paul Blart: Mall Cop because viewing audiences rather see a goofy fat man fall down than a satirical indictment of gun culture and confronting mental illness. It’s a hard sell and received a very mixed response due to the questions of director Jody Hill’s intent to glorify a troubled character that reads more like a psychopath we’d hear about on the evening new.

I don’t think Ronnie, played by Seth Rogen in his most versatile, non stoner role, is meant to be a hero. We assume that because he’s the lead, the film must be on his side. There is definitely sympathy towards him because there are circumstances that are out of his control like having bipolar disorder and living with an alcoholic mother who isn’t the best at guiding her stunted son into adulthood that. Still this is a difficult character to cheer for. It’s important to state that a lot of Hill films deal with middle America people. Working class guys who more liberal, city people like myself can be judgmental of. I say this because Ronnie’s biggest red flag is his obsession with firearms. There is a scene close to the beginning that he and two of his fellow mall cop employees, the Yuen Twins (John and Matt Yuan), attend a shooting range where they fire off the largest guns available at their paper targets. Intercut, they discuss new weapons on the market and how great it would be to carry them on the job. I realize this is a normal interest to some people but it’s very frightening to see their enthusiasm and knowledge of the handheld killing machines. The movie wants you to be uncomfortable about this. Even though it’s played for laughs when Ronnie is describing this epic tapestry of a dream he has of saving lives with a shotgun to the psyche examiner at the police academy, you’re meant to be as afraid as her. Ronnie is detached from reality, partially because halfway through the film he goes off his meds but even before that this is someone with little life purpose. The driving action to ignite the little plot the film has is a flasher starts a rampage of exposing himself to women in the parking lot. Ronnie promotes himself to investigator to find “the pervert” especially when the man flashes the woman he loves most, Brandi (Anna Faris), a ditzy, high maintenance cosmetics employee. The concerns arise when Ronnie believes he has found a purpose in vigilantism under the guise of rent-a-cop attire.

It’s important to note that almost all the characters are despicable which both helps and hurts Ronnie’s case. In one instance we see Ronnie racially profile Saddamn, played by Aziz Ansari, as the mall flasher. It’s obvious they have beef and it’s off putting to see Ronnie accuse him due to his ethnicity but as we entered that scene, Saddamn was creepily touching a female mall patron. He is now equally complicate as an untrustworthy person in this case towards women but it does give the movie a brief moment to talk race relations that it otherwise moves past. The one biggest instance it could address the tension between police and and minorities is when Ronnie participates in a ride along and gets dropped into a sketchy part of town. The gang he encounters and unexpected triumphs over is vaguely Latino and headed by Danny McBride as a white cholo. It’s understandable that Hill would want to work with his old standard McBride since they jump started each other’s careers with The Foot Fist Way but it creates a more comedic moment of Bride overacting and being silly only to be shown up by Ronnie instead of portraying tension between a white faux cop like Ronnie and anyone of color.

The film makes sure to distinguish the difference between Ronnie and the police though neither are painted valiantly. Ray Liotta plays Detective Harrison that is assigned to take on the case of the flasher as well as a series of burglaries occurring in the mall. In typical Liotta fashion, he comes off as a jerk as he is extremely mean to Ronnie though it’s understandable as Ronnie is immaturely hostile to the man he views as invading his territory. But Ronnie is clearly is his own entity acting outside the law as we see in a montage as he and his right hand man Dennis (Michael Peña) commit debauchery throughout the mall, beating up skate kids, spying on women in the dressing room and doing all the drugs. All this is instigated by Dennis but it shows regular guys getting drunk on their small amount power provided by a badge. Still the film’s climax is of the equally excessive force of the police as Harrison sends in a small brigade to take down Ronnie who has holed up in the mall. While it’s exciting to watch Ronnie fight cops in some hand to hand combat they do end up beating him mercilessly on the floor. It’s scenes like this that flip flop on how you should feel towards Ronnie. He is shown hauled away from the mall in slow motion, bloodied but victorious. This is followed not long after by what should be the big resolution of the film of catching the infamous pervert which Ronnie does by shooting him point blank in front of the makeup counter. It’s jarring as it comes after a comedic chase between a stumbling Ronnie and long takes of a man’s junk. We’re supposed to be shocked by this violent action even though Brandi, his former manager and city see him as a hero.

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I do want to mention the scene that is most contentious and that many were offended as it relates to the unawareness of rape culture. Brandi is an infatuation for our lead and after multiples instances of stalking her and making her visibly uncomfortable, he shows up at her house for an imaginary date. It’s obvious to us he can’t read the signs of her disinterest but it is also conveyed that she a shallow and unlikable character with her douchey friends and the condescending way she speaks of her customers. On their “date” she gets wasted and indulges in some of Ronnie’s anti-psychotic meds. He takes her home and after she vomits on the front lawn, we see him having sex with her passed out body. It’s date rape and it’s uncomfortable. I’ve always found it the gut punch of the film because it is that slight step too far. Throughout it toes this line of Ronnie being flawed, everybody is flawed but he’s complicated because he’s both a danger yet sympathetic. Here we see that much like not being able to pick up on her signals, he’s unaware that what he’s doing is wrong which is often the case with date rape. The miseducation of what is consent and how Ronnie believes that his actions are welcomed are because she doesn’t say no and in her extremely inebriated state when Ronnie briefly questions his conduct she slurs “why did you stop, motherfucker?” I don’t think Jodi Hill had any intention of condoning this behavior. This is a movie seen through Ronnie’s perspective but the film is aware that Ronnie isn’t always right, quite often he makes the wrong moral call but while most viewers know that killing is bad, consent is still (surprisingly) a gray area in the public conversation. Hill didn’t intentionally put this in the film to stir up controversy but he didn’t do enough to address it either. That night is never brought up again between the characters and it’s something that I wish could have better resolved considering how this is a sensitive subject.

I believe Observe and Report would have been better understood if it had come out after the success of Hill’s HBO hit comedy Eastbound and Down. In that series Kenny Powers played by Danny McBride is a similar big dog in a small town but more noticeably awful as he is egotistical and disrespectful to everyone. Kenny has less of an excuse for his dickish behavior since he’s a guy who let fame get to his head while Ronnie is a more an innocent man child whose obsession leans towards guns rather than baseball though both are reprehensible towards women and minorities. Eastbound is easier to get behind because it’s more clear cut that Kenny is a terrible person who you’re laughing at not laughing with for all his poor decision making. Ronnie’s has a lot of external forces making him the unsettling antihero we see on screen. He’s all gray area wherein Kenny we can unanimously hate.
I think it’d be even harder to make a comedy like this today with our current distrust of the police and the constant deadly shootings we hear on the news. It’s funny to see the 21 Jump Street guys have epic fails with their police work but watching a lone, bipolar gun nut patrolling a mall hits too close to home. It’s important to still make satires that can make light of these situations while reminding us to be aware of these warning signs. While twisted, this is a movie told through the perspective of a dangerous person. Rogen makes him lovable through his beta charm but you know that from an outsider’s perspective, he’s someone you’d avoid. The story is hyperbolic but the grounded setting makes it not far off from the relatable small town malls many of us grew up with. Ronnie is that creepy kid who didn’t know how to talk to girls and probably lived in the dilapidated house down the street no one wanted to walk past. He’s a real world and scary character but also at times a disarming, sympathetic person which conflicts our moral sensibility. This is my plea for a grossly overlooked film that continues to offer more in our current political and social atmosphere. If anything, it holds up better than Paul Blart.

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