09 April 2009

At the movies: Observe and Report.

Seth Rogen is one of the country's most reliable comic actors, and he luxuriates in the emotional mess that is mall guard Ronnie Barnhardt. Though the part screams out for writer/director Jody Hill's muse Danny McBride (who has a brief and glorious cameo), Rogen's affability helps lead the audience into dark and beautifully-messed up paths. McBride is one of the more intriguing screen personas of recent years, and between his remarkable screen debut as Bust-Ass in David Gordon Green's All The Real Girls and last summer's Pineapple Express, he's crafted a fascinating body of work. But he can't really bring across empathy, and that's one of the reason that Rogen works so well in the role.

Look no further than enduring treasure Celia Weston as Ronnie's long-suffering mother to find this film's glorious blend of the meaningful, the misconceived, and the monstrous; her scenes with Rogen are remarkable acheivements in taking the grotesque and making them sweet. Weston is like a Flannery O'Connor character, a female Harry Dean Stanton, and she (and Collette Wolf as the crippled baristress Nell) provide the first truly iconic female characters to Hill's cinematic universe.

Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) is a bipolar mall security guard longing for an unattainable blonde (comic goddess Anna Faris) who decides to clean up the filth of the mall by any means necessary, while also defending a young, put-upon woman from exploitative management scum. So we pretty much have Taxi Driver as a screwball comedy, with the added glistening layer of pharmacology that operates in symbiosis with mental illness. Also, it may have the funniest use of heroin I've yet seen in a film.

Regarding this film's more transgressive moments, I have this to say: Observe and Report does not endorse date rape any more than it endorses going off one's prescription medications or beating up children. It's a messed-up film that depicts messed-up behavior, and it's rightly R-rated. It's also a fascinating portrait/indictment of our national fascination with the 'loner who does good' archetype, because Ronnie Barnhardt is emotionally disturbed, and his actions are disturbed. Does the end justify the means? Certainly not, but like Taxi Driver, society seems to think so if all loose ends get tidied up. So where are this film's arrows targeted?

Hill's last film was the near-unwatchable The Foot Fist Way. But in the interim, he and his North Carolina associates have upped their game, giving us the exceptional HBO series Eastbound and Down. And now, with Observe and Report, he's given us the first great major motion picture of 2009. Acerbic, open-hearted, deeply troubled, and walking a fine line between madness and glory, if it starred Nicole Kidman or Bryce Dallas Howard, it could beautifully conclude Lars Von Trier's USA Trilogy. Your friends who'll hate it aren't really your friends.

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