I know it’s easy, but don’t blame Paul Blart. Really, don’t do it. It isn’t worth it. You know why? Because people ate up Paul Blart. He was a hit at the box office. And the way people are eating up sequels these days, they would have eaten him up again. Had the cheap jokes of Paul Blart persisted in this other mall cop film, Observe & Report, then things would have been peachy. Fortunately for us, instead of another Paul Blart, audiences got Ronnie Barnhardt.
“What’s the difference?” you say. Well, for starters, Paul Blart had a heart of gold. He tried to do good while performing, as some bribed critics would say, “hilarious hijinks.”
Ronnie Barnhardt does not do good. Ever. In fact, he does mostly bad. He has every intention of being a great guy, but he’s a sociopath. And very rarely does a sociopath’s intention of good equate to actual good. For example, Ronnie’s idea of doing good police work is killing crackheads in cold blood. Okay, perhaps they didn’t quite die, but he may have used some excessive force. And if that scene wasn’t enough for you, watch the ending of the film. It won’t be spoiled for you here, but lets just say there is more excessive force used.
Ronnie Barnhardt’s story did not meet much success. It is one of the lowest grossing Seth Rogen films ever released, and one of the critically despised films in his repertoire. But why? What is so wrong with this film? I mean, people have very serious reactions to it. Just look at some of the reviews online. Yikes. People react strongly to the violence, to its cynicism, to its anger. The film is mean-spirited and never lets up. Nobody wins, nobody changes for the better, and nothing is learned. Why would anybody want to see a film about a sociopath with a mundane job who creates a false catharsis for the audience by performing acts of unnecessary violence?
Wait, actually, that sounds like a familiar plot. It sounds like some universally beloved film that has gone on to become an American classic.
But Taxi Driver wasn’t a comedy. It was serious. It had all sorts of drama and what some new, hip critics call “badassery,” which is just another word for unnecessary, yet stylish violence. What makes Scorsese’s film a masterpiece and Jody Hill’s film too vicious and stupid to watch? They’re essentially the same film. Only, Taxi Driver was a drama. This man is sick and depraved and his drama is somehow important because of this. Ronnie Barnhardt, equally depraved, is reduced to a bad fart joke by most critics because critics are watching this film as a straight comedy.
Don’t get me wrong, before we go any further, this is a comedic film.
However, I would not call Observe & Report a comedy. Comedies, by an antiquated definition, are supposed to have happy endings. This one does not (perhaps arguable, make that argument in the comments section). Comedies are also supposed to make you laugh.
This film achieves the goal of making its audience laugh, but to what end? How far will the audience follow this film? I saw Observe & Report twice in the theaters. Once by myself, and the second time (in retrospect a bad decision) with my girlfriend. Both times I saw the film I noticed something strange about the audience.
I was part of a very select few people who were still laughing after half an hour. Particularly after a scene that takes place a half hour into the film. After this certain scene, people rejected the film’s attempts at humor. They sat, motionless, waiting for their ten dollar torture chamber to turn its lights back on.
And it hit me, leaving the theater on both occasions, why they stopped laughing. The protagonist became completely unlikable. We were stuck in a comedy starring a man with no morals.
Not only that, but it was Seth Rogen up there committing murder, performing date rapes (no argument, here), beating up children, and doing cocaine in a mall bathroom. At the time, we had come to expect Seth Rogen to be a certain character. We expected him to be the sort-of dumb, sort-of funny man child who has a good heart, not to be a totally dumb, sort-of insane sociopath with no heart at all.
The film is shocking. Its violence is fast and brutal. There is an immense amount of offensive language. There are no likable characters. I’m still describing Observe & Report, you know, for all you Taxi Driver fans out there. However, that latter film is well-respected for its courage, and the former film is universally despised for its indecency.
What is a courageous film if not a bold display of indecency?
I can tell you why Observe & Report failed.
For the same reason that The King of Comedy failed. People don’t like to mix their genres if they don’t have to. And people certainly don’t want any kind of ambiguity from their filmmakers.
Comedy has an implicit subjectivity. Drama can dare to be objective because there are images on a screen and they play out in succession as a story progresses, fine, but a comedy is always commenting on something. The joke always has to have a point. There is always a means to an end. So when you release a problem comedy, there (bad joke?) going to be some problems. First of all, why are we laughing at this crazy person? Are we laughing at him, or are we laughing with him?
We’re just coasting along in this comedy, and all of a sudden a horrifying act of violence is committed. Are we supposed to laugh at that? Do we laugh at its absurd amount of gore? Is that even funny? What is my intended response?
When people ask themselves these questions during a movie, they have already left the film. They are no longer following the story or buying into what is happening on screen. They see a fault with the film. And I can’t really blame anybody. That is not how we have been trained to watch movies. They are supposed to have clear lines. Funny parts can be in serious movies, but when it gets serious, the music needs to let me know. The tone needs to change accordingly. We can’t have the punchline be murder. It’s unsatisfying.
But sometimes we get films that blur these lines. And they’re important. Especially films like Observe & Report that are marketed and sold to mass audiences. People need to know that lines can be blurred. Sometimes comedies can convey a message that is just as rich and profound as dramas.
I’ll admit, the film is not perfect, but it is extremely ambitious, thought provoking, and totally courageous. Yes, courageous.
What do some of you think of the film? Let me know in the comments section.