Not every chintzy Hollywood comedy that comes down the pike need be held up as an example of the State of Contemporary Entertainment, but a film like Jody Hill’s pretend-flippant, zeitgeist-baiting Observe and Report practically begs for serious consideration. And who am I not to take the bait? And since the film is as assaultive and glib as it wants to be, I’ll lower myself to its level right up front and directly state that Hill’s proudly “dark,” emptily “provocative” Seth Rogen vehicle is shocking only in its blatant contemptuousness for suburban America, not for its silly, prurient plot contrivances and slickly packaged audience goosing. Even if Hill (whose prior film, The Foot Fist Way, has its passionate defenders, but just got deleted from my Netflix queue) aims for some sort of tacky commentary on warped machismo, in which a mall security cop’s swaggering delusions of grandeur eventually spiral out of control and wreak havoc on those around him, his message, as it were, gets lost in a tired, generic movie language. Not just failing to subvert the basics of film to get his point across, Hill isn’t even sophisticated or daring enough to meld his movie’s ghastly shocks with the ingredients of veritable comedy. These days, shock factor trumps careful comic calculation: why mount a successful joke when you can just flash a penis onscreen and be called “visionary” and “raw”?
Quite a few self-respecting critics seem to have fallen for this one, the nadir of the endless parade of stunted man-child films, which somehow gets bonus points simply for admitting its main character actually is potentially psychotic (Lisa Schwarzbaum calls it “risky” and “riotous”; David Edelstein claims it “goes straight for the action-comedy genre’s underbelly, which turns out to be dark, violent, and jiggly.”) As if providing a diagnosis grants him a prescription to indulge freely in bad behavior, Hill mounts a flashily unpleasant compendium of nervous laughs predicated on misogyny, racism, and alcoholism, all of which wouldn’t be as objectionable if his film didn’t have a constant air of self-righteousness, an attitude that tells its audience they’re not only going to laugh, but that they might just learn something, too. This instructiveness is there right from the start, in the film’s early quick cuts of Rogen’s Ronnie at a shooting range, a dead-eye hitting his targets—head and crotch—with blammo precision (he’s so quintessentially American!); it’s there in the cutaways to mall-going fatsos greedily slurping down banana splits and trashy women flaunting their tightly packed assets; it’s there in the protectively ironic, distancing use of the Band and the Pixies in its opening and closing credits; it’s there in the viciously sad interactions between Ronnie and his constantly sauced mom (Celia Weston, putting her considerable talents to evil use). This is you, America, and doesn’t it make you feel shitty to giggle at it? Click here to read the rest of Michael Koresky’s review of Observe and Report.