Sunday, May 10, 2009

When Harry Met Travis

The following column is reprinted from the May issue of Providence Monthly

Eyes Wide Open
By Scott Duhamel

Sure, after the all-out box office whammo of Paul Blart: Mall Cop, the dedicated filmgoer can only assume that Observe and Report, yet another comedy about a pudgy schlep who works as a uniformed guardian of the today’s substitute for the village main street, is just another Hollywood attempt to cash in on the ha-ha funny scenario of a delusional working class schmo sentenced to the hollow purgatory of the standard showcase of American middle-class capitalism- The Mall. The blazing truth is that two movies couldn’t be more different, and that the latter may be as disturbingly fractious as the former was warm and fuzzy.
Like the title character of the Kevin James vehicle, Seth Rogen’s Ronnie Barnhardt is a simpleton and a fool, has some definite psychological issues, wants to be a grown up weapons-carrying real copper, and has an unrequited crush on a good looking mall clerk. A few minutes into Observe and Report and audiences are going to figure out that the knot developing in their stomach ain’t being caused by hardy-hars, that this new mall cop movie is an all-out comedy of discomfort, and an unrequited one at that. A flasher is loose, in all his glory, and as he flaps his way through the mall and the movie, he epitomizes the general sense of disoderedness that percolates its way through the scatological bits and indecorous comic style. James's pseudo cop is a loser who becomes a winner, a slapdash dreamer just about hugging the sympathy out of audiences, Rogen’s Ronnie is bipolar and off his meds, an unrepentant racist, all out crude and remarkably devoid of self-awareness, and the actor never even stretches a pinky finger into the audience arena of empathy.
Writer/director Jody Hill has carved out this terrain before, in the cult fave The Foot Fist Way and HBO’s extremely off center Eastbound and Down, both collaborations with writer/actor Danny McBride as a shamelessly off-putting central figure. Hill has dropped the names of two of the unlikeliest influences on Observe and Report, two highly disparate iconic 70’s releases, singling out both lone wolf Harry Callahan of Dirty Harry and the festering Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver. Huh? It’s there though, and it doesn’t take much of a stretch, between the legit guffaws and the ongoing teeth clenching, to see Rogen’s Ronnie as traumatized blending of the two, a bellicose and wholly indecorous American id stretching out the belly of his starched blues while constantly bemoaning the inevitable fate of his ever shrinking manhood.
Hill has surrounded Rogen with some fine and dandy playmates, particularly Anna Farris in a wonderfully bravura performance as the slatternly party gurl, and out-an-out obnoxious jumble of bimbo and bitch. Making almost equal good use of her screen time is Celia Weston as Ronnie’s pathetic drunk of a mother. Even Ray Liotta shows up, eyes burning with his usual psycho intensity as a hard ass police detective, registering alongside Michael Pena tarting it up as Ronnie’s mall-cop partner, and a neat cameo by the ever blustery Danny McBride as a crack dealer.
Boldly mixing absurd and weirdly sad at times, Observe and Report is not so much a jangling of genres but a subversively bleak and blatantly dark social comedy, with wee touches of whimsy and a heavy sprinkling of the just-plain-tawdry. It shifts from quick bursts of on-screen brutality to scatological quick hits to an all out mock fest of sexuality, ethnicity, and any sense of moral order. As the flasher flops his way through a chase through the mall and reminds you of the infamous nude wrestling-through-the-hotel scene Borat, the connection should go deeper-Hill has constructed a mainstream Hollywood offering in cheap comedic clothing that is as deeply critical of American ways and means as anything in that funky hipster/comedian/put-on artist’s own movie. It’s also a quietly nihilistic and patently vulgar psychosexual drama posing as a revenge of the lunkheads, and a hilariously nasty vision of America’s heartland sinking in the mire, and truly, one weird, head scratching movie experience. It may not be as easily a defined poke into the nether regions as say, David Lynch’s 1986 Blue Velvet , but it burrows far under the gleaming fa├žade of Anymall, USA, and proves that it can be an absurdly frightening place to be.

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