SXSW Review: Observe and Report

"A film that really plays with the boundaries of what can be done with this kind of comedy."


I'm certainly no fan of Jody Hill. The rising star of comedy has secured fans and occasionally gets called "brilliant" or "a genius," but never by the likes of me. It's not that I have anything against the guy; it's just that he's at the forefront of a new wave of comedy, which is the next logical step from the Seinfeld/Larry David-style comedy that rose in the '90s. It's a type of humor that doesn't even really have a name yet -- most likely because we don't even have a good English word for it. The Germans call it schadenfreude. (I think they spell it that way just to frustrate me into Googling it every time I need to use it.) It means a delight in the misery of others, and that's exactly what this new wave of comedy is about.

Jody Hill specializes in making films and television that show the slow unraveling of completely unlikable characters, complete a-holes if you will, whose arrogance, incompetence and self-centered natures get them into more trouble than they can handle. We watch as their lives disintegrate right before their very eyes -- and we're supposed to laugh when it does. They say that tragedy is falling down a well, but comedy is watching someone else fall down a well. Hill's films are more like watching someone fall down a well, hitting their head on protruding bricks every few feet before slamming headlong into a pile of sharp rocks covered in angry insects that attempt to devour them whole as they bleed to death. But without the happy ending.

And for the most part, that is exactly what Observe and Report is. It is another mean-spirited comedy showing the complete self-destruction of the protagonist for the sake of humor. Seth Rogen plays Ronnie, the head of security at the local mall. But unlike the obvious similarities between this and Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Ronnie doesn't dream of being a police officer. He believes he pretty much is a police officer. Ronnie not only isn't a very smart man, he's also mentally unstable. He's on medication and would never be trusted alone with a child, let alone a firearm. But he has guns, and he daydreams about using them. When a local pervert shows up at the mall flashing female customers, Ronnie is given the chance to take point on a real case and hopefully prove himself to the woman he loves, Brandi the makeup counter girl (Anna Faris). But when a real cop shows up to take the case, Ronnie begins to feel his turf has been invaded and he tries to prove himself in a big way.

The rest of the film is a slow descent into a personal hell as everything good in Ronnie's life falls away and he commits sins the audience can never really forgive him for. Either you find this kind of humor funny or you don't. I don't. But many in the audience with me did -- they went nuts for it. The crowd was loud and loving it. I would have completely written this off, except that Hill does something new in this movie, something we haven't seen out of him yet: He really cares for his protagonist, Ronnie, and he gets the audience to care for him too.

As painful as that gets at points, the ending takes a brilliant left-turn that completely redeems the film. The film's slow descent quickly turns into a meteoric rise as Ronnie begins to take back control of his life and does something you simply don't see coming. The result is a film that really plays with the boundaries of what can be done with this kind of comedy. Despite the fact that several of the jokes were complete misfires for me, I really admire the film for its experimentation.

To its credit, the film is never bad. Hill tries at every turn to surprise you and do new things inside this brand of comedy. He keeps it interesting. I've got to admit, while I didn't laugh a lot, when I did I laughed hard. You probably already know if this is your kind of movie or not. If you enjoyed Hill's The Foot Fist Way or his new HBO show Eastbound and Down, or the comedy of Ricky Gervais, then you've probably already bought your tickets for this. And you'll love it. If you're like me, however, and didn't enjoy any or all of these, it's probably something you can hold off on.

Grade: B-