Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Seth Rogen has become an unlikely star through a series of projects with Judd Apatow beginning with the TV series "Freaks and Geeks" in 1999 and reaching a peak with the feature film "Knocked Up" in 2007. Those projects played on Rogen's slacker appeal. Now Rogen tries something a little different with "Observe and Report" (opened April 10 throughout San Diego). In his latest film Rogen plays Ronnie Barnhardt, a mall cop with an inflated ego, a racist bent, and a somewhat fascist sensibility. Rogen essentially delivers a comic version of Travis Bickle from "Taxi Driver". This new cinematic incarnation of Rogen seems to have audiences confused, or at least less interested. The film grossed a meager $11 million over the weekend compared to the $30 million opening weekend for "Knocked Up" (which is now near $150 million total). But the film and the character of Ronnie raise some issues that are worth discussing and that go beyond whether or not you like the film or think Rogen is making a smart career move. When I watched the film, I was intermittently appalled and impressed by filmmaker Jody Hill, and I'm still sorting through my reactions to decide whether or not making Travis Bickle warm and fuzzy is a good thing or not. (Note, this post contains some spoilers.)
First of all let me say that I laughed and occasionally laughed quite hard during "Observe and Report." But sometimes the laughter was just because I couldn't believe where Jody Hill and Seth Rogen were willing to go. I laughed but I was concerned why I laughed. Now normally I don't try to dissect comedy because it can be fatal to the patient. It's also a bit pointless and impossible (like herding cats). But there was something about "Observe and Report" that I wanted to explore even if I felt inclined to dismiss it as a dumb comedy. So forgive my rant.
Comedy that makes you uncomfortable can be good. If it's done right, it can provoke audiences so that they think about real issues. A laugh with a sting, so to say, like how Robert Altman's "M*A*S*H" used comedy alongside graphic scenes of army surgeons working in Korea to make audiences think about the war. Back in the 1970s, Norman Lear used the bigoted Archie Bunker character in "All in the Family" as a source of comedy, and won acclaim for daring to tackle some taboo social issues in the mainstream media. So why does Hill's comedy make me uncomfortable and concerned in ways that these earlier works didn't? Is Hill just an inferior artist that gives me doubts about his film? Perhaps...but there are other factors as well.
In "Observe and Report," Ronnie is presented to us as someone who takes his mall cop job very seriously, probably way too seriously. His sense of justice and fairness is seriously skewed: he overtly displays prejudice, he has delusions about his effectiveness and how he's perceived, and he has set himself up as a dictator in his mall kingdom. He sets his sights on the cute blonde department store make-up girl and essentially stalks her. Then he seizes the chance to get closer when a mall flasher exposes himself to her. Let's face it, if you met Ronnie at the mall, you wouldn't want to spend any time with him. But with Rogen playing him, he becomes the lovable hero in spite of his unpleasant personality.
Now let's compare Ronnie to some other likable bigots. When Norman Lear created Archie Bunker for "All in the Family," he also created Mike "Meathead" Stivic as Archie's counterpoint. Archie was the conservative, Mike was the liberal, and they frequently tangled over issues. Lear made equal fun of both, although he obviously sided with Mike's politics over Archie's. But what was refreshing was that the show came from a creator whose liberal beliefs did not prevent him from making Archie occasionally sympathetic even if he couldn't condone some of Archie's ideology. Lear was a humanist who treated all his characters with compassion and a sense of understanding for their flaws. The show tried to use humor to bring two very diverse sides together for a kind of dialogue, and he allowed us to laugh at things that had been taboo and made people uncomfortable. Even his show raised concerns for some liberals, who felt that Archie was too likable and that right-wing viewers might read his character as a celebration of racist and bigoted beliefs. But most critics and fans of the show thought it was a challenge to Archie's prejudices rather than a promotion.
We got a kind of revised Archie Bunker for the new millennium in Clint Eastwood's film "Gran Torino," in which Eastwood plays a bigoted war veteran who can't tolerate the blacks and Asians who have moved into his neighborhood. Eastwood's Walt, like Rogen's Ronnie, makes being a racist an acceptable part of a character's make-up. In neither case is the character's racism ever overtly challenged. It's treated as OK, so long as we can laugh at it. The assumption, I suppose, is that the audience understands or accepts that these racial slurs and bigoted comments, while not politically correct, are really just harmless and you should laugh them off. You know, since Walt and Ronnie aren't burning crosses on people's lawns, you should just let them harbor their little prejudices. Sticks and stones can break my bones but racial slurs never hurt anyone, right? Well, maybe not.
Neither Walt nor Ronnie are asked to reconsider their beliefs or how they view others or how they refer to others. Walt doesn't change his way of thinking, he just accepts his Asian neighbors once they come around to behaving more like he wants them to behave, or once he discovers that they cook better than he does. Unlike Archie, neither Walt nor Ronnie have someone on equal footing and of equal appeal to challenge them. Plus, in the case of Archie, we knew he was the creation of the liberal Lear; in the case of Walt, he's the creation of the conservative Eastwood so there's less a sense of examination of the character's own conservatism. So with both Walt and Ronnie, there's an even greater risk that the characters will be taken at face value by those who agree with the characters' prejudices.
Since Jody Hill is a relatively new filmmaker without a lot of previous work to help gauge where he might stand politically and socially, I'm not sure where he might be coming from in terms of his intent. I'm suspecting that he's more like Sasha Baron Cohen than Norman Lear, and by that I mean I think he's not that interested in social commentary, but very pleased with what he sees as being daring and provocative in his comic assaults.
Now this brings us to "Taxi Driver" and Travis Bickle. Martin Scorsese's film was definitely not a comedy, but many have seen Rogen's character in "Observe and Report" as a darkly comic riff on Robert DeNiro's character. Both Ronnie and Travis attempt to join law enforcement (Ronnie just wants to be a cop, Travis expresses interest in the FBI); both get fixated on blondes who are out of their league and want nothing to do with them so they stalk the women; both go through a "training" montage with voiceover; and both end up expressing their rage through violence that gets misinterpreted as heroism. But with "Taxi Driver," Scorsese left no doubt that Travis was crazy and dangerous, and by no means a hero. There was no doubt about the irony Scorsese wanted to convey as Travis' assassination attempt turns into a vigilante attack on local pimps and drug dealers that gets applauded by the media. But "Observe and Report" is unclear in its irony. People in the audience kept applauding the pudgy and appealing Ronnie as he bashed skaters on the heads with their skateboards, punched the mid-eastern shopkeeper in the face, beat up the cops, and shot a perp. Hill makes an attempt to label Ronnie as crazy and delusional. A psychiatrist defines Ronnie in those terms when he applies to be a cop, but she can be dismissed by the audience as an untrustworthy authority figure.
In the end, Ronnie lives up to his delusions in his own mind and succeeds -- he gets a girl (maybe not the one he wanted but a cutie nonetheless), the power he wants, a reward for his behavior -- and no one, including many in the audience, see the irony of his success. In fact, they cheer him on. Maybe Hill intended irony but if that was his intent not everyone is getting it, and that's worrisome because his film makes bigoted, fascist behavior all cute and cuddly because it's wrapped up in the soft package of Seth Rogen's popular appeal. On one level the film is saying that all Ronnie's unfounded prejudices and his belief in himself as judge, jury and executioner are all OK and there's nothing to be concerned about. OK, I know this film is a comedy, and that I should just cut it some slack, or should I? Do comedies get a free ride just because they are perceived as frivolous entertainment? I don't think so. Comedy has proven in the past to be quite an effective means of promoting ideas and change. The recent documentary Darling! The Pieter-Dirk Uys Story from the San Diego Jewish Film Festival showed how a man in drag poking fun at apartheid managed to help promote change because the government never took him seriously and didn't perceive him as enough of a threat to worry about. Comedy can have an impact and should be discussed in serious terms when necessary. The fact that "Observe and Report" did so poorly at the box office reduces my concerns because at least not that many people are seeing it.
But my mixed response also stems from the fact that at moments I found the film to border on something truly subversive. It did push the audience's comfort zone, it did go places that mainstream movies don't go, and it did poke around issues that are worth stirring up. But these moments seem less a part of a thought-out strategy, and more like a spasm of naughtiness on the part of a clever child.
So where does all my ranting leave me? Still unsure about how to respond to "Observe and Report" (rated R for pervasive language, graphic nudity, drug use, sexual content, and violence). I feel that there is something interesting and darkly funny buried in "Observe and Report." If Ronnie had been played by an unknown actor or someone unlikable, I think it would have succeeded better in delivering an ironic and uncomfortable comedy, which is what I think Hill wanted to create. In some ways the scenes between Ronnie and his alcoholic mom are the ones that work the best in the film. Hill wants to take grossout, raunchy comedy to a new place so that it has some edge but for the moment his work is still too soft. But my point here is to simply raise a discussion about comedy and about the impact films can have. Do they merely reflect current society, do they influence it, or are they just frivolous entertainment? Do we feel that we as a society have done away with racism to the point that we can make light of it with no worries about how it might be read? Or should we be concerned that pop entertainment is using appealing celebrities to make racism seem all warm and fuzzy and cute and harmless?
Companion viewing: "Taxi Driver," "All in the Family," "M*A*S*H," "Gran Torino," "Darling! The Pieter-Dirk Uys Story"