This review was first published on a now-defunct version of the website Screen Machine.
With Observe and Report, director Jody Hill cements his place as my new favourite American satirist.
Previously known for micro-budgeted indie The Foot Fist Way, and HBO comedy series Eastbound and Down, Observe finds Hill with an increasingly sure grasp of the complex tonalities that marked his previous work, and a high budget, studio-sanctioned playground in which he can let them loose. There’s something excitingly transgressive about watching such subversive, disturbing material delivered straight to multiplexes in a film populated with the hot comedy stars of the moment. Humour is pulled from date-rape, recreational drug use, sexual perversion, mental illness, serious alcoholism, and violence against minors. The key, somewhat contradictorily, is the way Hill plays the laughs, and the characters, so close to real life.
The story depicts the huge, inevitable and massively violent nervous breakdown of Ronnie Barnhart, a mall security guard, as he becomes fixated with catching a local flasher who is terrorising patrons. Ronnie, overweight, bigoted, narcissistic (and bi-polar to boot) follows in the tradition of Hill’s earlier protagonists. Foot Fist shows the collapse of Fred Simmons, the tin-pot fascist dictator of a small town taekwondo school. Eastbound portrays the ritual shaming of over-the-hill ex-baseball player Kenny Powers, as he finds himself reduced to a position as a substitute gym-class teacher in his home town, after a steroid-induced exit from the major leagues. In a bit of an image tweak, Ronnie is played by Seth Rogen: Apatow protégée and unexpected comedy star of the past few years. Rogen turns in a surprisingly capable physical performance, throwing his weight around in way that abruptly turns him from cuddly to menacing.
Hill gets a lot of mileage out of sticking the audience with a genuinely awful protagonist whom he asks us to follow and identify with, but for whom redemption rarely comes to pass. Every time his men approach the comeuppances they so richly deserve, they somehow manage to swerve away and emerge deficiencies intact; lessons come tantalisingly close to being learned but in the end are brushed aside. While Hill’s protagonists may be the most distinctively dislikeable, Observe is populated many dysfunctional characters; from the slutty beautician who guzzles tequila and prescription meds on a date with Ronnie, to the local cop who is more interested in chatting up attractive witnesses to pursuing suspects. In one of the subtlest jokes, Nell, a sweetly innocent fast-food staffer who crushes on Ronnie, is revealed to be a ‘born again’ virgin; such self-interested, eyes-blinkered, delusional behaviour runs rampant. The best thing is the way all these people are such recognisable types; there’s no Ron Burgandy-esque mania here. You could find all these characters on any street in any city. Hill’s is the kind of comedy that’s millimetres away from being drama.
What I love about Hill’s narratives, but most particularly in Observe, is the way they serve as a framework for nothing less than a critique of the modern American national character. His stories play off well-known fantasies of American exceptionalism, and the familiar trajectory of the hero’s journey, to conclusions that are so sick and repulsive they become a full-blown attack on the culture that spawns such structures. Remember those distinctively American narratives of Good versus Evil, where virtue, clean-living, goodness, and piety always win the day? Remember how these tend to manifest in stories grounded in violence; westerns, film noir, America vs Nazis, America vs Communism? In Hill’s America these structures replay themselves over and over again on a micro-level, where they become perverted.
Middle America, the heartland, has turned into a concrete wasteland, stuffed with big-box chain stores and a fat, lazy, morally complacent population, where every single person feels that these grand cultural myths are their birth-right, and insists on playing them out in their everyday lives. But nobody seems to recognize that what is suitable for the macro-level is not suitable for the micro; so in lieu of Nazis or communists they fight their neighbours; the guy that slept with their wife; the person at work who’s more successful. But, lazy and complacent as they are, the notions of personal change and acquisition of virtue that accompany these grand narratives, the idea of earning victory, are discarded: self-improvement is simply too much effort. The one constant—and here’s where Hill’s work gets really cruel—is the notion that violence and power still go hand in hand. America built its myths on notions of conquest in battle, and this aggression spirals down into the micro level. Delusional Ronnie just seems like a fat joke until a very clever 2nd act scene where his innate capacity for physical brutality suddenly manifests. A twofold realisation occurs: not only do his crazy fantasies actually have the potential to really hurt people, but he might just have the strength to get his way. This kind of disturbing emotional territory is pretty unusual for a comedy to traverse.
The final sick joke of Observe is that Ronnie really does win the day, glory, and the love of a good woman. The use of aggression as power is so rampant, and so unconditionally accepted, even when it is manifestly in disproportion to the situation, that no one even really blinks. Violence really can make you a hero, no matter how little you deserve it, and victors write history. You don’t have to be virtuous, good, or smart. In fact, chances are, you aren’t. Maybe it was always this way.
As one character says, “I thought it would be funny, but it’s really just sad”.