Normally, when I write about movies I’ve seen, I don’t like to focus on what other people have said about it, even if I disagree wholeheartedly with the mainstream opinion. That’s not fun writing for me. I enjoy reading dust-ups focusing on certain films (The Dark Knight being the most recent example), and I love reading reviews, I can’t get enough, but in terms of what I like to write about, I’m more interested in putting down what I think about something, how I responded, and back up my opinion with specific examples to illustrate where my feelings came from. Also, I think it’s good practice to write down your thoughts without qualification. I’ve written about my pet peeve about that kind of qualified writing before, although I was talking about political bloggers, many of whom seem to have a heightened sense of their audience, especially their “enemies”, so they write directly to the enemies, trying to diffuse their criticisms at the get-go. It is dreadful writing. This is the kind of thing that was drummed out of me in 10th grade English. A political blogger starts a post with: “I know that some of you out there think I’m evil or wrongheaded, but just know that I, in turn, find you laughably unserious.” That’s how it starts. So you’ve ruined the conversation before it even begins. If anyone reads BEYOND that, you’re lucky! It’s amateurish. State your opinion, stand by it, back it up with examples, and then let the chips fall where they may. MUCH better read.
Film criticism is different in a couple of significant ways, but I won’t go into that.
In terms of 2009′s Observe and Report, directed (and written) by Jody Hill, starring Seth Rogen, I need to break my rule a bit. I almost didn’t see this film, despite my high regard for Seth Rogen. The reviews, for the most part, seemed baffled that it was such a “dark” movie. I realize my taste is often not in line with the rest of the populace, but I get sick of not being marketed to sometimes. I LIKE “dark”. I LIKE “ambiguous” and “morally ambivalent”. I LIKE “serious”. None of those things should be apologized for. If it’s a good film, that is. You’re on your own if your dark morally ambivalent film blows.
There are plenty of good films recently that I almost didn’t see due to the misleading marketing campaign. The Weatherman. The Breakup. These are essentially serious films, and the posters, as well as the ads, told another story. I know complaining about this practice is similar to complaining about the tides, but indulge me. Back in the studio age of movies, genres were embraced and it was understood that different demographics were looking for different things. Notorious wasn’t advertised as a wacky Cary Grant screwball comedy, just to get asses in the seats. This is not to minimize the giant risk Cary Grant took with that role, taking a persona beloved by millions, and turning it inside out. I’m sure many audience members, trained to expect one thing from Grant, were surprised to see how relentlessly “dark” that film was, and how dark HE was. Regardless. There is a market for serious movies, for “women’s pictures”, for comedies, and the studios targeted people brilliantly.
Roger Ebert covers this issue wonderfully in his review for The Weatherman. One pertinent quote:
One of the trade papers calls it “one of the biggest downers to emerge from a major studio in recent memory — an overbearingly glum look at a Chicago celebrity combing through the emotional wreckage of his life.” But surely that is a description of the movie, not a criticism of it. Must movies not be depressing?
The main flap about Observe and Report appeared to be that it depicts a date rape. People were either defending the choice, or criticizing the choice, back and forth, and there were some who said stuff along the lines of, “But it’s not a date rape. It’s obvious that when they started having sex, she was conscious, and she passed out DURING the act.” To me, such arguments are beside the point. The real point is: date rape shouldn’t be shown without apology? What if he DOES take advantage of the fact that she’s drunk? What, that doesn’t ever happen in life? The only reason to get into a tizzy about the fact that Jody Hill dared to SHOW such an event is if you are worried and concerned about the lead character being “relateable”. Are we so programmed to need a lead character we can “relate” to? I sure as hell am not, that’s not why I go to the movies, or not ONLY why I go to the movies. I don’t go to the movies to be PROTECTED from harsh truths. We see movie after movie that shows unrelenting violence, bodies being blown to bits, with nary a moment of moral ambiguity … and then everyone flips out because a date rape is shown?
I didn’t understand the brou-haha about the date rape in the first place. It seemed that some people felt such things SHOULDN’T be shown without a big telegraphing arrow pointing down at the event saying, “This is bad. Don’t do this.” But I’m not an audience member who needs to be COACHED, morally, during a film, thankyouverymuch. I am aware that “date rape is bad”, but I certainly don’t think it shouldn’t be depicted. Once I finally saw the film, I REALLY didn’t understand the controversy about the date rape scene.
Not that I don’t think it’s an iffy moral situation he’s in there. I do. Anna Faris is wasted. When the scene starts, she is obviously passed out, as he pumps away at her from above. He is saying her name over and over, which seems to suggest that at one point she WAS conscious. He then realizes she is unconscious, stops pumping for a second and looks down at her, saying her name questioningly. She, still with her eyes closed, not moving, barks, “Don’t STOP, motherfucker.” So he keeps going. It was hysterical, in a truly awful way. It was HER line that was the button to the scene, that really put it into murky waters, morally. She didn’t remain unconscious. Who knows, she may have been conscious the whole time, but the fact that he has STOPPED is just not acceptable to her sorry drunk ass.
Do I think it’s date rape?
My question is: do I give a shit, either way?
What I care about is if it propels the story along, if it reveals something about the character, if it serves its purpose. If he fucks a girl while she’s unconscious, then I have to say, I’m not surprised, considering the other stuff I have seen from the guy over the course of the film.
Additionally, it doesn’t make me like him less. Not that I like him, but it’s one of those films that creates a turbulence in the viewer, a disturbing feeling of empathy for someone who, frankly, is a loose cannon, a disaster just waiting to happen … and yet, you feel for him. You feel like … if someone would just show this guy some tenderness, or say to him, “You’re awesome, you’re doing a great job”, then his whole life could change. But life isn’t that easy, and it is under no obligation to give us exactly what we need. So I do like him, in a way. He’s sweet to his souse of a mother (the always excellent Celia Weston), covering her up with a blanket when she passes out on the floor. He obviously is diligent at his job. He has good qualities. But on top of all of that, is a simmering surface of open resentment, the kind of guy who needs to WIN in any conversation he has (there’s a very funny “fuck you” exchange with one of the guys who works at the mall, and it goes on forever, “fuck you” back and forth, back and forth, because neither of them can allow the OTHER one to have the last word).
So the focus on how awful the date rape scene is seemed misguided, missing the point entirely. This isn’t a black comedy. This is a drama. Morals don’t need to be spoon fed to us. And sometimes, the greatest art creates confusion. By liking this, do I endorse it? I don’t believe that, but art can push those buttons. It’s a tug-of-war, and I love a movie that can do that. I didn’t go into the film needing to “like” Ronnie, Seth Rogen’s character. His behavior in that scene is completely consistent with his life as that trapped bound-up man. It wasn’t gratuitous, it wasn’t played for laughs – or not explicitly so. It didn’t make a joke of the serious fact of date rape. But even talking about this issue annoys me because it gives credence to the opinion that such things shouldn’t be shown. I loved that it was ambiguous. That she was passed out, that he hadn’t noticed, and that when he stops, concerned for her, she barks at him from her coma to keep going. It was awful. It was perfect. It was funny in a terrible way. Give me more of that.
He’s “in love” with her, but this is what he gets. This is what some people “get” in life, and so the resentment and the feeling of being left out of the human race starts to build up. In some people it just comes out as incessant complaining, or insufferable self-righteousness (“I’m the ONLY person around me who has ANY sense”), and in others, it becomes a cauldron of potential violence. All it takes is a perfect storm to bring such an individual to the forefront, and he will make you sorry, forever sorry, that you ever ignored him, or underestimated him.
Ronnie Bernhardt is that kind of man.
His ancestors in film history are long. Peter Lorre’s amoral child-murderer in Fritz Lang’s M come to mind, and his long creepy scene where he stares at himself in the mirror, making grotesque faces, just amusing himself, but also, on a deeper level, perhaps looking for A self to inhabit. This is a man outside the human family. He has no empathy for others, perhaps because he has been shown so little empathy in his life, or who knows, maybe he was born with “evil genes”, something missing – a little something like compassion, or the ability to connect.
I can think of another famous character in the canon that captures the loneliness of the sociopath.
In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle says:
All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go. I don’t believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention, I believe that one should become a person like other people.
This is the territory that Observe and Report occupies. Seen in a mentally normal perspective, Travis Bickle’s words make a lot of sense. It would be difficult to disagree with him. But in the context of that film, and his personality, you shudder with dread as to what this will mean. His “sense of someplace to go” is skewed, grandiose, unconnected from reality. Bickle is someone you would do well to avoid, if you meet him in real life. The film captures that sense of ongoing rejection he feels in encounters with his fellow man. He just can’t seem to get the tone right. People back away from him, emotionally, and he can sense it. Why? It hurts him. Why should he be so rejected when he is doing the best he can like everyone else?
To imagine Seth Rogen, current golden-boy of the Judd Apatow comedy empire, playing an isolated loser with delusions of grandeur is a stretch, but it’s something that is totally thrilling to watch. Not only is he up for the task, but he inhabits it easily. He’s not “acting”. This is another aspect of Seth Rogen that is usually showed in a positive light in his other films – his shlubbiness, his everyday guy sense of humor, a guy with few prospects. But here, those exact same qualities are used in an inverted way. Same qualities, but they seem totally different in another context. A similar thing can be said about Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love. That was not a completely different person. He wasn’t character-actor-ing it up. That was the same guy we see in all of his comedies, but without the levity, without the ba-dum-ching that keeps us comfortable. He has the same antisocial tendencies, the same sudden bursts of rage … but nobody’s laughing at him there. It was a brilliant hat-trick. One of my favorite performances in a long long time. Having dated a couple of men who are funny for a living, I can say that it’s not a stretch at all to put people like that into more serious dark films (if it’s the right one, that is) – because often their impulse to make people laugh comes out of something deeply neurotic. Generosity, too, they love to make people laugh … but underneath that is usually a hell of a lot of loneliness and angst. The truly great comedians utilize that part of themselves. George Carlin, Richard Pryor, they don’t shy away from their sense of the tragic.
Seth Rogen plays Ronnie Bernhardt, a security guard at a mall. My first sense of where we were going, in terms of this character, was early on in the film when he’s being interviewed by a local news station. A flasher has been terrorizing the parking lot, and Rogen becomes obsessed with the case. He’s not a real cop, but this is HIS case. HE is going to solve it. To be interviewed by the news is a big deal to anyone, but to this guy, hovering on the edge of his fantasy of himself as a righteous avenger of the weak, it’s blood to a vampire. He behaves badly. It’s a toe-curlingly awkward scene. The reporter mis-states his title, introducing him as, “I’m standing here with Ronnie Bernhardt, a security guard at the Forest Ridge Mall -” He can’t stop himself, he interrupts her rudely. “I’m head of Mall Security. I’m not a security guard. Can we take it back?” He looks at the camera and says, “Action.” He’s starring in his own movie, and she said the wrong line. She awkwardly goes on with her first question, and he interrupts her again. “You’re just gonna keep going? You’re not going to fucking go back and correct your mistake?” Rogen plays this moment just right. The curse word shows his anger, and also his lack of control when he feels threatened. She is taken aback, not sure what to do, and again, he grabs the reins. “I’m fucking Head of Mall Security. Let’s take it back.” Again, to the camera, overriding her authority, “Action.”
It’s an awful scene, perfect in its delivery, done in one take. It happens in the first 10 minutes of the movie, and in that moment, I threw out the sweet shlub I have come to love, and thought, “Woah, now, who is THIS person?” He did it with such truth, such recognizable resentment and impatience (he has no manners, he can’t afford them, not when he has to win in every conversation), that I found myself getting excited. Rogen has always shown that kind of self-righteous grumbling about the stupidity of the rest of the planet, and usually it’s funny. Here, you either want to smack him upside the head, or walk away, to avoid having to witness any more awkwardness.
Rogen hangs out with the rest of the security guards, who all look up to him in reverence. He is King of the Hill in his small world. None of them are bright bulbs, intellectually, and he senses that, so he easily has dominated them into a state of groveling subservience. He demands apologies when they have slacked off on this or that aspect of their job, and when it seems the apology isn’t sincere enough, he makes them say it again. And again. He’s a petty tyrant.
He lives at home with his mother, a slurring drunk, who is racing herself into an early grave. It seems like death can’t come fast enough, the way she drinks. She doesn’t know how to be a mother. She stutters out the things she thinks mothers are supposed to say, but in the middle of her monologues, you can see her eyes flicker, with anxiety, addiction, because she can tell, vaguely, that she’s not making any sense. Ronnie is kind with her. Gentle. He sleeps in his childhood room, with basketballs and soccer balls on his sheets. It is bleak. He is living on a subsistence level, in terms of emotional fulfillment.
There are a couple of sparks that jumpstart Ronnie into action. One is his crush on Brandi, played by Anna Faris, a bitchy blonde who works at the makeup counter in the mall. Her name alone should tell you she would not be an appropriate mate for Ronnie. She doesn’t give him the time of day. There’s an awful scene where we see her gossiping and laughing with her gay coworker. Ronnie observes from afar, and Rogen, without doing too much, lets us see how much this bothers him. What bothers him is not entirely clear. That she has private jokes with someone other than him? That she is so buddy-buddy with a gay person? Rogen doesn’t tip his hand. Instead, he strolls over to the counter, and starts laughing loudly, in an aggressive alarming manner. I remember thinking, when I first saw it, “Ronnie, what are you doing??” It was so obvious he had no idea what the joke was. But it wasn’t as though he had been hovering on the outskirts, trying to look like he was involved. Oh no, that would be too vulnerable and open for a guy like Ronnie, who has an armor over his personality saying, “I laugh at people. They don’t laugh at me. I feel sorry for people. Nobody should feel sorry for me.” So his aggressive laughing is scary. Brandi and her friend glance at him, struck dumb, and he keeps laughing. I was dying for him to stop. This was the push-pull I went through with this guy. I know guys like him. They’re the ones who usually bitch and whine about how girls like “bad boys” and why doesn’t anyone like him because he’s “nice”? I have learned that “I’m a nice guy”, in certain contexts, is indicative of anger and resentment at an almost global level – and THAT’S why girls don’t like them. Some guy complaining about how girls don’t like “nice” guys is a giant red flag. Rogen embodies that sort of resentful pent-up type of guy, convinced he’s nice, convinced that women are idiots for not going for him, not realizing that his personality is the issue. So I cringe from guys like Ronnie, and yet in that moment of weird laughing, I ached for him and wanted to intervene. Just go away, Ronnie, stop! However, characters like Ronnie have (alas) an impenetrable ego, to some extent. Their ability to lie to themselves, to see themselves as winners, regardless of the social embarrassment they cause, is eternal. He doesn’t understand social cues. He sneers at social cues.
If you haven’t seen the film, and you think of Rogen’s other roles, you can see the similarities, but here it comes off as sociopathic, frightening. Kudos to Rogen.
The other spark that comes along is the flasher controversy, and the introduction of Ray Liotta, a local cop investigating the case. Ronnie immediately feels threatened by him, but Rogen manages to suggest also the impotence and helplessness he feels when faced by a real cop. He’s so angry he has no authority. He has engineered his life so that he can win, in his small sphere. But here, with Liotta, he can’t win. The two clash immediately. Liotta brings just the right energy to the role. He seems like a real person, a real detective, at first baffled at this bossy disrespectful security guard honing in on his territory, and finally he is enraged, pushed to the breaking point.
The film doesn’t come down too hard on Rogen’s character. It’s not a pamphlet meant to teach something. It’s a portrait of someone’s psychology. It shows what it shows. It shows what he does, what he feels. People live like this. Let’s watch it.
Rogen strolls through the mall, looking around, seeing potential crime happening all around him, events that only he can stop. His voiceover reminded me of DeNiro’s emotionally exhausted narrative in Taxi Driver. The ballast has been stripped away. When you have lost everything, when you are faced with the fact that your idea of yourself is actually not accurate in the slightest, things have a tendency to get very very clear. Rigid as well. It’s a defense against the chaos that has been wreaked upon you, the luck of the draw (you’re fat, your mother’s a drunk, you’re biopolar).
In any other context, a character like Ronnie deciding to work out, and apply to the police academy and “better” himself, is seen as a wonderful thing, something to root for. Oprah has taught us well.
But in the context of Observe and Report, I am forced to acknowledge, “Oh, shit. He really should just know his place in life. Because this program of bettering himself can lead to nothing good.”
It’s an awful feeling. Fatalistic. Hopeless.
Rogen, and Jody Hill, here, provide what appear to be mini-catharsis moments along the way. Random acts of kindness, understanding. The revelation (when he realizes his coworker, and buddy, is a criminal) that Ronnie does have a moral compass, that there is a line over which he will not step. Do the moments add up? Can he be redeemed? Can he find, if not happiness, then at least a modicum of peace and self-acceptance?
Or maybe I’m asking the wrong questions altogether. With this film, there are no easy answers. Looking for answers seems to be beside the point.
Observe and Report was one of the best films of 2009.