I know this goes against the strict coda of current comedic thought, but I didn’t enjoy Jody Hill’s Foot Fist Way one bit. I thought it was boring and a bit morose. Maybe the plight of a strip mall karate instructor hit a little too close to home. Danny McBride’s bloated Sansei looked, talked, and acted like the dude that schooled me in the way of the fist back in middle school. It actually brought back nightmares, and didn’t settle well into the recesses of my stomach. I gave it a hearty “Boo!” But aesthetically, it’s a near perfect experience. If it had been sold as drama, I would have viewed it with different eyes. At the time, I wasn’t familiar with Jody Hill’s work as a director. Now comes his second film, and I have to declare it a work of stultifying genius. It seems to be coming from a deep, dark hole of nonconformity. It is as heartbreaking as it is funny. Like The Foot Fist Way, it is eternally depressing. Yet, it finds a way to uplift the audience. Buying that Friday night ticket, know that you will be thrust into a brutal stretch of craziness. At times it’s a broad cartoon. Then it will suddenly flip itself over, becoming this obtrusive bug struggling against the tide. It’s jarring, to say the least. But it makes for an unpredictable ride that is certainly hard to root against. Seth Rogen’s Ronnie Barnhardt isn’t the most likable person on the planet. In fact, he’s kind of a doucher. But by the end of the film, you’ll truly want to see him succeed on some level.
Despite being championed by every crucial comedic force on the planet at this current moment in time, Hill’s first foray into feature filmmaking could hardly be considered commercial or mainstream. More than most of you missed it. Because of that, I have a feeling you will be a little less trusting of his new outing as you make your way through its tortured innards. Observe and Report is a very uneven film, but that’s part of its charm. The tone and feel are all over the place. It bounces from reality into animated territory quicker than Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Its tough to tell what O&R wants to be at any given moment. Which perfectly mirrors the psychosis swirling around inside Barnhardt’s broken psyche. At times we are dealing with this ruined character’s own distended imagination. We are often seeing the world of the shopping mall through his troubled eyeballs. At other times, we are swapping places with those around him. We are witnessing his nimble existence through the viewpoint of his co-workers and acquaintances. It’s a clumsy jumble of off-put feelings that actually work in building the tension of the piece as a whole.
It’s weird to call this one of the most inventive and original comedies seen in years when, just four short months ago, we were inundated with a very similar movie titled Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Fanboy bloggers are quick to bitch about the earlier film’s success and lack of quality. But in all actuality, both Bart and Observe and Report are solid entertainments. Mall Cop served as a showcase for Kevin James, revealing him as one of the best physical comedians around. O&R is similar in that it sells Seth Rogen as a quite adept dramatic actor able to sort through and sell jokes that might not fly so easily off the finger tips of a lesser individual. Both narratives are incredibly similar. Both feature delusional mall cops harboring authority issues. Their shared dream is to become a police officer. And they both seek the attention of a pretty cashier that works inside their stated place of business. Eventually, both overcome their insecurity issues and save their mall from an intrusive outside force.
Both films offer scenes of people shopping in a mall. Both offer scenes in an Arcade. Both offer scenes in a food court. There are rifts between co-workers inside the mall. The difference is, Blart director Steve Carr opted to make a family friendly film that would appeal to nearly everyone on the planet. Jody Hill, working from a place deep inside his cold, black heart, decided to make a more personal picture. His understated effort takes a darker path to its eventual outcome. It never pretends to be twisted. It simple is, existing on its own unwavering juice of adrenalized imagination and off-handed humor. This is the same movie made by two very different artists. And that's where the divergence in theme comes from. They attack the material at slightly skewed angles. It's an interesting conceit. Both films prove to be surprisingly funny. Carr and Hill work together in proving that two films about the same thing can resonate from the soul in different ways. Both movies are able to exist on their own merits. In the long run, both should prove to have equal footing.
Bart is comfort food. A fast meal served on a plastic tray. Its gourmet junk, tasty with a kicker of sauce. It never pretends to be anything else. And America ate it up. Observe and Report, on the other hand, is a little harder to swallow. It’s one for the slightly more sophisticated kid that doesn’t strive for or thrive on thick, easy laughs. Some will watch it, and revel in its night terror like ways of punching the audience in the gut. It’s an ugly account of small-minded existentiality. One that doesn’t sit quite right.
It’s opening theme song goes a long way in setting up its premise of “man’s inhumanity to man”. The Band’s cover version of Bob Dylan’s When I Paint My Masterpiece is laid thick across images of low wageworkers scooping ice cream and serving hot pizza. It asks, “What is art? And what is self worth?” These are people struggling to get by in this mean, cruel world, and their “masterwork”, as it were, is a perfectly fried corndog on a stick. That is all they will ever amount to. If you make it through this melancholy prologue without sinking into a bottomless pit of despair, you will more than likely love the rest of what Hill and Rogen have in store for you.
Observe and Report is one of the most inventive comedies of the year. It will surprise and shock you in ways you’ll never see coming. Put simply: It’s a great piece of cinema. Observe and Report? Whoop-doo x 2!
(All of B. Alan Orange’s reviews are based on the Boo! or Whoop-doo! evaluation system.)