Monday, April 20, 2009

The Ha-ha Behind the Wee-Wee

Unlike the similarly themed Paul Blart, Seth Rogen's new comedy Observe and Report forgoes family-friendly slapstick for something dark and discomforting. Lisa Schawarzbaum found Observe and Report to be a more risky, more deep and more clammy than the "squarely comforting" Blart. Jody Hill, who wrote and directed the film, is clearly out to do some taboo-smashing.

The humor in the film is not meant to come from jokes or gags but, rather, from characters being outrageously dumb, outrageously mean or outrageously pathetic. Humor also comes from the unexpected, off-center way that the actors play scenes. Anna Faris is committed to making her character as unlikable as she can. She is skanky, goofy and caustic all at the same time. Michael Peña elicits laughs using a silly wig and an even sillier lisp. One of the funniest characters is Aziz Ansari's lotion salesman Saddamn. Saddamn complains that Barnhardt is a racist who has been harassing him because of his Middle Eastern ancestry. He explains that Barnhardt once accused him of having a plot to blow up the Chick-fil-A. "Why the fuck would I want to blow up Chick-fil-A," he says, "it's fucking delicious." He says the word "delicious" with pure love, which is a feeling very much misplaced in the context of fast-food chicken you buy in a mall.

Paul Blart was sweet and bumbling. Ronnie Barnhardt, the main character of Observe and Report, is ominous and crazy. The story leads up to the bipolar Barnhardt running amok after going off his meds. Unlike Blart, who will reach for his hip to trick a malefactor into thinking he has a gun, Barnhardt viciously attacks people with a Taser gun and batters them with his flashlight. This film, a graphically violent psychological study, has been compared by critics more to Taxi Driver than to Blart.

Joe Leyson, critic for Variety, wrote, "Rogen makes no effort to claim audience sympathy." This type of self-absorbed character is nasty because he has no time to bother with the interests and feelings of others and he is too deluded to see the flaws in himself that are so obvious to everyone else. This makes his character, all in all, creepy.

Hill barely seems concerned about getting laughs in the last half hour of the film. It left me wondering if this was really supposed to be a comedy after all. The AMC series Breaking Bad is much more effective than Observe and Report in blending violence, dark psychological drama and comedy.

I do not have problem with filmmakers mixing together disparate genres, but they cannot simply throw all the elements randomly into a pot and expect it all to blend well together. I am looking forward to Judd Apatow's next film, Funny People, which combines raunchy comedy with sensitive drama. "It's a hard movie to describe," says Apatow. "It's kind of a lot of different movies in one." But it will be difficult for Apatow to pull this together and I can only hope that he is able to get it right. I am less optimistic about filmmakers who combine multiple genres in an effort to create an enormous hybrid that appeals to everyone. I do not know what to expect from the upcoming Night at the Museum sequel, which is being promoted as a family-fantasy-romantic-comedy-adventure.

Paul Blart ended with the good guy getting the pretty gal and the crooks getting arrested. That ending was happy and orderly. Observe and Report has a grim and twisted ending. Betsy Sharkey, L. A. Times critic, wrote, "It heaps piles of bad, crazy stuff at our feet then walks away. There is no moral to this story, and there's not much comedy either."

Observe and Report features a very naked Randy Gambill stalking mall patrons as a serial flasher. We're talking full-frontal nudity with Gambill, in the words of film critic Lisa Schawarzbaum, "exposing his junk." Rogen gets into a foot race with Gambill, who has penis swinging in the wind. So that no one misses this, director Jody Hill sustains shots on the Gambill's chubby bare body. It is surprising that the director didn't throw in slow-motion or close-up shots to really burn this image into viewers' minds. This, in the end, is only funny because it is shocking.

Tension and surprise are involved in making us laugh. The shocking and the funny stimulate the same nerve center in the brain. That part of the brain is called the left superior frontal gyrus. See, it's like I tell my mother, doing comedy criticism takes the same knowledge as it takes to do brain surgery. The point is that slapstick is full of tension and surprise. A man strides out of a tailor's shop in a fine new suit and approaches a massive puddle at the corner. Tension. The man makes it around the puddle. But, suddenly, a large truck comes barreling through the puddle and splashes him. Surprise. That is certainly enough to get a person's gyrus operating.

I have to wonder, though, if film comedy has entered the Age of the Shocking Penis. The person responsible for this is, again, Judd Apatow, who says that he wants to "shake Americans from their squeamishness about male anatomy in movies." It is an odd thing that, as comedy stars become less attractive, we are made to see so much more of them.

Ben Stiller got his penis stuck in his zipper in There's Something About Mary (1998). Jason Biggs got caught with his penis in an apple pie in American Pie (1999). Jason Biggs glued his hand to his penis in American Pie 2 (1999). But neither Stiller nor Biggs showed their actual anatomy in these scenes. There's Something About Mary shocked audiences and got big laughs with a close-up of a prop penis and balls ludicrously tangled up in a zipper. In Borat (2006), Sacha Baron Cohen had a naked wrestling scene with co-star Ken Davitian. A black dot kept Cohen's penis covered the whole time.

More recently, though, Jason Segel did unadulterated full-frontal nudity in the Apatow-produced Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Segel greets his girlfriend wearing nothing but a towel. He whips off the towel planning to have sex but his girlfriend stops him and tells him that she's breaking up with him. Segel is devastated. The actor, standing there naked, couldn't look more vulnerable and pathetic. Segel, who wrote the scene, said that this was something that had happened to him in real life.

In the last few years, a succession of comedy stars have bared themselves on screen. Seth Rogen got naked in Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Will Ferrell got naked in Old School. In the end, though, this has been a lot of bare butts, bare chests, and bare backs. Until Observe and Report, it has only been Apatow who has been willing to show the male member in his films. No one actually showed their penis in Superbad, but the closing credits featured an extended montage of penis illustrations. A lingering shot of a man's penis appears in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. John C. Reilly, in the aftermath of an orgy, is sitting on the floor of his hotel suite surrounded by naked men and women. He gets a phone call from his wife and struggles to have a conversation while people around him are having sex and taking drugs. At one point, a nude man comes up beside Reilly to ask him if he wants coffee. The man's penis is inches away from Reilly's face. The humor is meant to come from the fact that this nude man, who practically has his junk shoved in Reilly's face, is being so nonchalant. His voice is monotone. His penis is hanging limply. The preview audience was not, however, nonchalant. Reportedly, 20 audience members stormed out of the screening in disgust.

The penis is just about to enter the frame from the right.

Comedy films have always gotten into trouble for pushing the envelope. Early slapstick comedies were criticized by church groups for being vulgar. In The New Janitor, Chaplin is not paying attention to what he is doing while working a feather duster around the office and accidentally dusts the well-rounded derriere of a secretary bending over. If a person was to bend over near Chaplin, Chaplin would lean towards them to use their ass as an armrest or he might pull out a match and scratch it against their ass to get a light. Working in a theatre, he tries to stick a prop sword into its holder but misses and sticks an actress in the ass. Just as Apatow thinks that the penis is funny, Chaplin thought that asses were funny.

Still, Keaton did not need to streak naked through the storm in Steamboat Bill, Jr. to surprise and amuse audiences. Harold Lloyd did need to expose his penis to seem vulnerable in The Freshman. Ben Turpin did not need to have sex with a custard pie to be outrageously silly in The Shriek of Araby.

A comedian can only shock an audience with his penis once. This is the reason that this trend shouldn't last much longer. This fifteen minutes of fame for the shockingly funny penis is almost over.

This is not to say that comedians will not find new ways to be shocking. Comedians now seem to think that stunned silence is better than laughter and getting a person's jaw to drop is better than getting a person to smile.

A high-profile film on the current release schedule is Sacha Baron Cohen's Bruno. In March, the Motion Picture Association of America assigned an NC-17 rating to Bruno based on the inclusion of a number of sex scenes. This includes a bondage scene, a scene where Bruno appears to be having anal sex with another man, and a scene where Bruno encounters a dominatrix at a swingers' party. In addition, the trailer features Bruno battering a self-defense instructor with a pair of dildos.

I do not see much in the way of decent classic comedy on the release schedule. The upcoming release The Hangover brings the big cat back to big screen comedy.

The Ugly Truth pairs Gerald Butler and Katherine Heigl in an old-fashioned "battle of the sexes" romantic comedy, although I would rather stay home and watch Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth.

I am afraid, the day of the humble, demure comedian is past.

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