So the blogosphere is starting to go abuzz about Observe and Report‘s date rape scene. Specifically, of the “Jody Hill is an asshole because he used date rape for a gag” thing.
Now, if you want to say that date rape is de facto impossible to use for comic purposes, that’s an entirely valid argument to make, and I understand it and honestly sympathize. But a lot of people who haven’t actually seen Observe and Report are making snap judgements about the movie, and honestly, that shit just irritates me as much as when Christians made up their minds about Dogma without seeing it.
I have seen it. I didn’t pay, I theatre-hopped to see it.1 In retrospect, it doesn’t pass the “would have paid money to see it” test for me. And here is the thing…
Observe and Report is a very, very, very dark comedy. It doesn’t just use date rape as a vehicle for comedy; it uses violence, drug abuse, sexual harassment, and a myriad number of other really horrible things, and it doesn’t cartoonize any of it at all, not one bit – this is not a HEY BIG LAFFS comedy. This is a comedy of the “make you as uncomfortable as humanly possible” variety, so much so that it frequently jumps into anticomedy territory, and I don’t think for one second that this was anything other than intentional. Just about every character in the movie is basically a terrible fucking human being – especially Seth Rogen and Anna Faris’ characters2 – and the movie’s entire message is a warped and nihilistic one. (It is entirely possible that large parts of it happen only in Seth Rogen’s character’s head.)
Yes, i’m aware that Seth Rogen and Anna Faris and all are promoting the movie and trying to play up the date rape scene as being light and fluffy and not really date rape. That is because they are not morons and have no interest in committing career suicide by saying “yeah, the movie is about horrible unlikable people and there’s a date rape scene and the movie doesn’t even try to make it okay.” Which – I don’t think it does, not at all, not even with Faris’ “consent”-but-not-actually line, because the entire scene is so intensely gross and the line doesn’t alleviate that at all. (Incidentally, Jody Hill has made it clear in interviews that the studio demanded the inclusion of the line, and I can see that – he wasn’t going for any sense of “okay it’s all right now” at any point in that scene.) And yes, I think this was entirely by design. Of course, your mileage may vary.
Studios do not want to work with professional actors who say “our movie is designed to unsettle you and make you uncomfortable and question all the other mindless entertainment that gets shoved down your throats. We made an indie movie and are pretending it is a standard Hollywood chucklefest, just like Paul Blart Mall Cop, so that you dumbshits will spend money on it. Fuck you, Middle America.”
And… look, I study speech issues quite a bit, and although I am not a total one hundred percent free-speech demander… I think how some people have been saying that date rape can never be the source for comedy is the sort of absolutism that worries me a bit. I understand there are power issues at play here, but at the same time saying “you can NEVER do that” denies the opportunity to make a thoughtful attempt at it, and although I don’t think Observe and Report manages it – it’s really still too much ick-factor for me to appreciate the scene as comedy – I can’t say that the potential doesn’t exist because there is nothing borne out of pain that cannot be turned into a joke by someone who knows how to do it right. There have been murder jokes for as long as there have been people, pedophilia jokes for as long as there has been Michael Jackson, and those are two of the worst goddamn things there are.3
Every Jewish comedian has a dozen jokes about the Holocaust, and of those dozen jokes, half were written by non-Jewish comedians who didn’t feel comfortable telling the joke but who were willing to pass it over to the Jewish comedians (with their approval, of course) because the instinct of every comic writer is to question, to mock, to say the unthinkable, and it’s a vitally necessary instinct in our society.
And it does bother me a bit to read myriad knee-jerk responses, all of the same variety: “I haven’t seen the movie, but doing that is disgusting and they shouldn’t have done that, playing date rape for cheap laughs.” Again: I understand where the response comes from, and I sympathize, but it bothers me to have what Jody Hill and Seth Rogen and Anna Faris did as “cheap” when it was anything but. Faris and Rogen have made their careers playing lovable goofballs and both worked dramatically against type here, playing a pair of pretty goddamned loathsome losers. And I don’t think Hill pulled off the date-rape scene at all, but it wasn’t “for cheap laughs” – it was carefully constructed and designed to provoke a certain, nervous reaction, one that I think was intended to be at least partially if not mostly unpleasant.
I can’t stress enough my belief that the scene was intended to provoke thought. And although it can fail as art or commentary – well, maybe “we’ve made them laugh, now we have to make them THINK” is a cliche, but it’s still valid.
EDIT TO ADD: A little more ruminating, and I think I’ve come up with the best way to summarize Observe and Report: it’s subversive. And by “subversive,” I don’t mean Hollywood subversive, where the word means “there are some pointed jokes directed at authority figures and a kickin’ indie soundtrack,” but genuinely subversive – it’s a movie that takes the now-standard heroic-schlub movie tropes and totally deconstructs them by having the heroic schlub be a far more realistic useless fat asshole with delusional fantasies that in reality are really just power trips and barely-sublimated violent urges, who then acts out said violent delusional fantasies while convinced he’s the “good guy” who’s gonna get the girl of his dreams (who’s similarly horrible). It’s like Travis Bickle got fatter, stupider, and even more crazy – that’s Observe and Report, a movie about what would happen if Paul Blart was a for real dude.
And that’s why it makes perfect sense that the studio would demand that Anna Faris tell Seth Rogen, mid-date-rape, to keep going; there’s no such thing as a studio that wants the hero of their potentially marketable comedy to be a rapist, so of course they would look for the most convenient out available. Because studios don’t like subversive movies.
- From a sneak preview of 17 Again, which incidentally is far more enjoyable than anything with Zac Efron has a right to be. SHUT UP YOU, I AM DAMNED MANLY. [↩]
- No, the fact that Anna Faris’ character is a terrible fucking human being doesn’t “justify” her being date raped. That is not my point. [↩]
- Of course, the counter to that point is “well, murder jokes are really about the universal indignity of death, and we’re all scared of that.” That doesn’t really explain the pedo jokes, though. And if you tell me you don’t know at least one really horrifically funny joke about pedophilia, you’re lying or sheltered. [↩]