Observe and Report
Seth Rogan, Ray Liotta, Anna Faris, Michael Peña, Celia Weston
US theatrical: 10 Apr 2009 (General release)
UK theatrical: 24 Apr 2009 (General release)
It’s become the most contentious scene in a film loaded with controversial content. It’s more argued over than the sequence where doped up mall cops beat several defiant teenage skate rats with their own boards, or when our hero shoots up, or when his mother passes out in a drunken stupor, or when an overweight deviant runs full frontal and completely buck naked through a suburban store outlet. Still, when all is said and done, the single most scandalous moment in Jody Hill’s mean-spirited masterwork Observe and Report has to be the date (and eventual rape?) between Anna Faris’ ditzy make-up counter clerk Brandi and Seth Rogen’s bi-polar mall security guard, Ronnie Barnhardt.
The set-up is as follows: after months of literally stalking the poor cosmetics gal, Ronnie finally gets Brandi to agree to a date. It’s a haphazard arrangement, one the little lady clearly forgets. After spending several hours on her front lawn, Ronnie finally sees a completely drunk and rather rumpled Brandi exit an SUV filled with men. As she waves them off, she’s shocked that he is waiting for her. Still, a date’s a date, and the two head off to a wild night of shots, shots, and more shots. In between, Ronnie tries his best to woo the scatterbrained little Miss, but she’s not even interested. When he pulls out a pill bottle filled with mood-altering prescriptions, Brandi immediately demands some. A few more slugs of tequila and a couple dozen tablets, and she’s semi-comatose.
Cut to the next sequence, and both are stumbling out into the night. Brandi vomits a little, and Ronnie picks her up and eventually takes her into her house. Another cut, and our hero is humping the holy Hell out of his seemingly unconscious date. Brandi is indeed unresponsive - that is, until Ronnie stops, clearly having second thoughts about screwing someone who’s so non-responsive. Immediately, Brandi screams out, demanding that her partner continue with what he was doing. Punchline complete, we move onto the next sequence. Brandi and Ronnie eventually talk to each other, but the subject of a supposed sexual assault never comes up.
Now there are two ways to look at this seminal scene. The first is rather perfunctory. Ronnie, seeing an opportunity, took advantage of the situation and literally raped Brandi. She was so out of it that she didn’t know what she was doing - curse-laden response or not. On the other hand, there is a sentiment circulating among moviegoers and film critics that this young woman represents something other than your typical comedy chanteuse. She’s clearly loose in both her virtues and morals, taking any opportunity to lure males into her web of wanton needs (as we see later on with a certain police detective). It’s part of her identity, something she flaunts over and over again in the film.
So on the one side is the argument, complete valid and wholly defendable, that Faris’s character is so inebriated, so overloaded with drugs and alcohol, that there is no way she could have ever given consent. Even the moment when she wakes up in mid-coitus and screams “who said stop mother*cker” is not meant to be a kind of tacit agreement. Nothing she did before, during, or after the incident excuses Ronnie’s behavior, and when the deed is done, it is a crime and reprehensible in its nature. Nothing in the film, not the tone or the style of humor should excuse such behavior. Even in a narrative which turns perversion into a literal “running” gag, the abuse of women is never, ever acceptable, funny, or fodder for cinematic satire.
On the other side of the fence is the feeling that, within the context of the movie as a whole, as part of Hill’s insular universe of full on fetid freaks and disturbing geeks, Ronnie’s actions are simply par for the course. He is seizing on an opportunity that he clearly feels he’s entitled to, and would not be banging away on Brandi unless she somehow indicated it was all right. Ronnie is not really a bad guy. Instead, he’s psychotic within a standard medical definition and while reduced to delusions, he rarely if ever acts on them. Until he goes on an all out drug binge with buddy Dennis he doesn’t indulge in his many make-believe daydreams. So why would the situation with Brandi be any different - especially when we see that there is some manner of remorse or reassessment on his part.
So which is it? Rape, or the reality of dating circa 2009? As with anything Hill has to say, the meaning is not clear. Feminists have the right to be angry, especially when a mainstream Hollywood movie offers such a backward vision of male/female fornication. But is Observe and Report really saying anything new? In this Girls Gone Wild dynamic of brazen openness and complete lack of shame, should a drunken slut bear any of the blame? It’s not a question of that horrid old excuse “she had it coming.” It’s more of a mirror on where society has sunk since women were empowered to ‘take back the night.’ Clearly, had Hill meant the scene to be something akin to pure sexual assault, Brandi would have been treated like a piece of dead meat. Ronnie would have ridden her relentlessly and relished in the act without a single moment of regret. The next day, our chunky hero would have walked into the department store, smirk on his face, and winked at the woman as she cluelessly stared back.
Of course, arguing over Brandi’s semi-consciousness and automated permission may not mitigate the truth. But one has to deal with those illustrations as well. Is the fact that the character is seen carousing with several men prior to the date important? Is her desire to get liquored and doped up indicative of anything other than wanting to have a good time? Should we care that she let’s Ronnie take her home and into her house? And does the interruption and shouted sentiment really mean anything? Remember, the “it’s only a movie” defense does not apply with people poised to push their agenda. Heck, PETA is even asking the two decades old Pet Shop Boys to change their name to something less offensive to animals. Feminists clearly want this to be an example of Tinsel Town going way too far for something supposedly funny - and they may have a point.
Yet it’s not fair to make Brandi out to be completely innocent. Hers is a troubling public persona that should be condemned as well. Granted, one should never vilify the victim for the sake of the criminal, but what about everything else that makes up this girl’s personality? Her less than virginal approach to life? Her uncontrolled binge drinking? Her slutty skanky whore-ness? Again, just because you’ve slept with hundreds of men doesn’t mean you have the right to be raped. But does it also excuse a complete and utter lack of basic morality and human civility? Audiences are happy when Ronnie ends up with shy coffee girl Nell, someone who he’s built up a narrative-long relationship of openness and trust. When Brandi tries to get back in his good graces, Ronnie gives her a public kiss-off that centers on her sleeping around.
It’s all so complicated, and yet so crystal clear. Neither character is a saint, since that’s the way Hill creates his comedy. Both are equally flawed and have issues that should concern anyone on the outside looking in. Of course, via penetration, Ronnie becomes the aggressor and therefore the wrongdoer, while poor innocent Brandi can imbibe and indulge all she wants, and because she doesn’t shout “fuck me” before the smash cut, we assume she is being raped. Looking at the scene objectively, it’s clear we have a problem. But through the subjective eyes of both the world within Observe and Report and the society we exist in today, it’s hard to cement such hard and fast facts. Maybe this was Jody Hill’s intention after all. At least people are talking about his film, and in these days of mass marketing hoopla, any discussion is good for business. Or is it?
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.