Monday, April 13, 2009

when funny isn't really funny

Farris and Rogan in "Observe and Report" - Judy Holliday and Walter Matthau for the New Millennium?
Seth Rogan turns in something of a major performance in Jody Hill's "Observe and Report," playing a character nearly as messed up as the movie surrounding him. This is unexpected and yet it really isn't.

Rogan came to movies a fully-formed character actor, despite mentor Judd Apatow's misguided attempt to foist him on us a leading man in "Knocked Up." He's a budding Walter Matthau and, from where I sit, he and Jonah Hill are ready for a Gen-X update of "The Odd Couple."

Jody Hill, meanwhile, is a filmmaker with a lot of great ideas rattling around his head, the best of which was to see the sublime Anna Farris as the new-age Judy Holliday and cast her opposite Rogan.

Hopefully, Rogan's next film will be advertized as "Rogan's Back ... and Farris's Got Him." I could watch these two forever.

But, oy, then there's this movie. Wait 'til you see it.

"Observe and Report" is the kind of "comedy" (I'm going to sound very old now) that expects us to laugh at characters and situations that aren't remotely funny. And I guess that we do laugh. Nervously.

"Observe and Report" has attracted the kind of reviews in which the critic in question has felt obliged to call the film "funny" but with some kind of modification. My favorite: "Numbingly funny." (I won't identify the critic.)

Personally, I'd opt for "squirmingly funny."

Since I retired as a working critic, I am fond of commenting to my wife after just about every other movie I see, "I liked it but I have absolutely nothing to say about it." I mean, take "The Reader" as a case in point. Prestige film, right? Yet, I would find it living hell to have to write about it.

But "Observe and Report" is one of those seemingly nothing movies that makes me feel terminally opinionated. In it, Rogan plays an all-too-familiar modern male figure suffering from what I call testosterone poisoning. Rogan's Ronnie Barnhardt is a pathetic, self-deluded loser who uses his expendable position as security chief at the depressingly typical Forest Ridge Mall to run roughshod over people - mostly other workers at the mall, most minority workers. Almost immediately, "Observe and Report" positions itelf as an edgy social comedy/social commentary.

And, initially, it works on that level. But the problem here is that (1) there is only one character who is even remotely sympathetic (a sweet woman named Nell, played by Collette Wolfe) and (2) Hill has little else but contempt for these characters (sweet Nell included). Even Ronnie's mother (Celia Weston) with whom he still lives, doesn't get off here. She's a flatout drunk who brags that she's "f****d" all of Ronnie's friends.

After a while, as the worthless Ronnie abuses a series of equally worthless victims, the film becomes, well, squirmingly funny.

The dubious moral of all of this: People are crap.

Note in Passing: In real-life, Ronnie wouldn't be even remotely amusing. There's an on-going case in Riverside, Ca. regarding a lost puppy named Karley (right) that was being returned to its owners by a neighbor when another neighbor - a gung-ho, take-charge, authoritarian firefighter - stepped in and took over, only to eventually beat the puppy to death when it didn't want to go with him. Karley suffered a cracked skull in three places; her nasal cavity and ear canal were crushed, and she lost an eye. She had to be euthanized. Check out this sad case on Justice4Karley.

No, a man like Ronnie Barnhardt is no laughing matter.


Anita said...

Why is it that people with troubling impulse control issues tend to be attracted to public service? The mix is never good. "Observe and Report" atutely dramatizes this but I agree with you that, yes, the notion of "funny" is not always funny, as evidenced by this movie. The case in Riverside sounds gruesome.

m.g. said...

Anita is correct. It's been said that you can't parody a parody. I think the same goes for certain tragedies - rape and child molestation, for example. Not the stuff of comedy. "Observe and Report" manages to pull it off - almost - by walking a very thin line very carefully. I can't believe they were able to pull off the date rape sequence, for example. Still, I found myself laughing at stuff that is decidedly not funny.

Harry said...

The genius of "Observe and Report" is that it shows how disruptive so-called peace-keepers can be. I'm glad someone said it and I'm glad they made it funny. These people are jokes.