Dreams and delusions
Ferdinand Koenig is back…
“All human beings are also dream beings,” said Jack Kerouac. However one person’s dreams are another’s dangerous delusions. Observe and Report (2009), a richly dark comedy written and directed by up-and-coming talent Jody Hill is a film that draws on this dichotomy to create an unsettling and thought-provoking film.
The story concerns Ronnie Barnhart (Seth Rogen), a shopping mall security guard with a dream. His dream is to move beyond his job description, which is to ‘observe and report’ activity in the mall, and actually become a modern-day hero.
The mall is plagued by a flasher. Ronnie makes it his mission to find and eliminate this threat, and in doing so also hopes to win the heart of his dream girl, Brandi (Anna Faris), who works at the mall’s makeup shop.
Ronnie’s path to glory is, he feels, blocked when the mall’s manager calls in the police – genuine law-enforcement officials with the authority to investigate and pursue criminals. Ronnie’s nemesis takes the form of Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta), the smooth professional, who Ronnie believes is marching in on his turf – particularly when he sees the Detective putting his arm around Brandi to console her after a flashing incident.
Ronnie is pure testosterone – a gun-loving, aggressive, angry man, protective of his status and position, lowly as it is. At the same time, he is a vulnerable man-child, with diagnosed psychological problems, an alcoholic mother (Celia Weston) and a father who left the family when Ronnie was born – an event Ronnie’s mother doesn’t seem to have entirely forgiven her son for.
The character of Ronnie marks a new departure for Seth Rogen – who is better known for playing the part of likeable slackers in light-hearted comedies such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) and Knocked Up (2007). According to writer-director Hill: “Observe and Report may be the only comedy ever made that was inspired by Taxi Driver (1976)” and, while Hill’s film is unlikely to go down in cinematic history as an all-time classic, it is testament to its power that comparisons between the two films can provoke thoughtful discussion of the merits of both, rather than contemptuous dismissal.
Observe and Report will not be to everyone’s liking. In the US, the film has alienated many fans of Rogen’s usual material and on the basis of its opening takings will be the lowest grossing film in which he plays a leading role. However, this is an unfair reflection on the film’s quality – it is a bleak and intelligent comedy, which like Ricky Gervais’s The Office induces awkward and guilty laughter.
As one of the professional cops who spends the whole film mocking Ronnie puts it when Ronnie reaches one of the heights of his humiliation: “I thought this was going to be funny, but actually it’s really sad.” A fitting summary, indeed, of the whole film.