Last week, I asked my friend how he planned to open a stand-up routine he was preparing for. He hopped to his feet in the bustling public area we were in and shouted, “A guy walked into the Civic Association in Binghamton and shot 13 people!” All too often, blunt insensitivity passes for “dark comedy.” My friend, innocently, hadn’t made the distinction; I advised him to change his act, and he did. It’s too bad that Jody Hill, who wrote and directed Observe and Report, apparently received no such consultation.
There’s a kernel of genius in Hill’s idea—using a mall cop (who isn’t Kevin James puttering about on a Segway) to parody vigilantism—but Hill doesn’t turn that kernel into popcorn; he detonates it with TNT. Sometimes the shockwaves push you backward laughing, but sometimes you wonder if Hill seriously thinks he’s making a joke. We open on a flasher running amok at a suburban mall. The chief of security, Ronnie (Seth Rogen), treats the case with the utmost self-importance. For anyone who’s seen Anchorman or “The Office,” this fatuity is familiar; but rather than following convention and making Ronnie a bumbling blimp with a baby brain and a heart that gets more properly aligned as the movie goes on, Hill explicitly has Ronnie inform us that this bully is bipolar and was a child with special needs. Are Ronnie’s pompous delusions of authoritarian grandeur—which he eventually consummates—meant to be attributed to his illness? In Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Hill’s acknowledged take-off point, the hero-driven-to-violence is Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a Vietnam vet-cum-Underground Man killer-cabbie; but neither Scorsese nor Paul Schrader, the screenwriter, assigned their protagonist any specific affliction other than the woozy cultural climate of the 1970s.
When Hill brings in real disorders as a jokey pretext for criminal delusion and anomie, one starts to wonder whether the writer-director is in any position to mock the delusional—Observe and Report goes from showing us a pervy goofball opening his trench coat to expose his junk to Ronnie slaughtering a half-dozen junk dealers in front of the adolescent son of one of the victims. The tone is so wobbly that it’s as if the filmmakers had shot each scene from a different draft of a heavily revised—or maybe not heavily enough revised—script. When Ronnie, with his clay-brained brutishness, flashes red lights of realistic menace in this sunny lotus-land, the incommensurability of character and setting is queasily off-putting. Ronnie aspires to be a cop, but for no moral purpose (sane or otherwise); at least Travis Bickle thought he was doing the right thing. Likewise, Scorsese and Schrader provoked one’s empathy and intellect; Hill just provokes your autonomic responses. His shock cuts and hyperbolic effects are hilariously outré, but clever dark comedy they are not.
Because this is only Hill’s second film—following The Fist Foot Way (2006) and a few episodes of “Eastbound & Down,” which he co-created—part of his problem is inexperience. Why else would he turn Dennis (Michael Peña), Ronnie’s doting protégé, into a cold-hearted thief? It makes no sense in character terms, and it throws a wet blanket over an audience primed to like its jerry-curl’d Sancho-Panza-in-Aviators. Even worse, the betrayal scene is staged dramatically; the editing and plotting are often sloppy, but the awkward pathos of this scene is a true depressant. And the word “fuck” is used so many times that it loses whatever teeny edge it retains; trying to wring a titter out of the f-word is a truly desperate stroke in 2009. Hill doesn’t think of Observe and Report as “a disposable comedy … where there’s no greater subtext,” but on the evidence of the film alone, one may think the director very careless both technically and ideologically. According to Hill, “I hope people feel themselves caught up in a Cameron Crowe moment, but the visuals are so fucked-up that it kind of produces a really uncomfortable feeling. Like, people applaud and then they stop: ‘Wait, what the fuck am I applauding? He just murdered somebody.’” The audience I was in seemed to just keep applauding.