Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The new face of Seth Rogen?

I have a confession to make --

I was starting to get slightly sick of Seth Rogen.

Of course, the man will always have a place in my heart. But regular readers of this blog will note that I did not care for Pineapple Express. Superbad was no Knocked Up. And Zack and Miri Make a Porno was a really feeble effort. Given the fact that Rogen has something like 19 more movies coming out in the next few months I was slightly worried that Rogen might have fallen victim to two unpleasant celebrity downfalls:

1) Overexposure.

2) One-character-shtick.

The first worry is still there: Rogen is way, way overexposed. But unlike somebody like, say, Quentin Tarantino (who pretty much stopped making good movies but would go on talk show after talk show, and come up with something ridiculous and cringeworthy to say nearly every time) it seems that Rogen has not fallen into the trap of becoming a jerk.

If you watched his delightful interview with Jon Stewart, he remains as charming and witty as ever. He wasn't recycling old shtick -- he was bantering with the best in a breezy, effortless way.

So, no, Seth Rogen is in no danger of becoming an asshole. (He's one of those rare famous people who takes his celebrity as more of a pleasant surprise than an entitlement.)

But the other worry was a lot more serious. "Ben" in Knocked Up is not exactly the same character as "Cal" in The 40-Year Old Virgin... but they're pretty close. And they're both an approximation of Rogen: Slob; hipster; wit; underachiever; stoner. Granted, that character is very lovable, but there's only so much of it you can take.

It turns out -- with the shockingly fascinating (and just plain shocking) movie, Observe & Report -- that there was nothing to worry about on the acting front, either. Seth Rogen is a much, much more talented actor than I had any idea.

I'm a little wary about overpraising Observe & Report -- I'm not sure it's quite as great as I did when I left the theater. But I don't think it's much of an exaggeration to say that it's one of the two or three best movie I've seen in the past year. (I don't think one could objectively say that it was a better movie than The Wrestler or Slumdog Millionaire, but I think it's fair to say that I probably enjoyed it more than Slumdog.)

The movie is also incredibly twisted. (Dana Stevens coined this immortal piece of praise, "The feel-weird comedy of the season!")

The schlubette, for instance, refuses to see it because she caught wind of the movie's controversial quasi-date-rape scene. (The schlubette redubbed the movie "Mall Rapist" -- which might be a better, if unmarketable, title.)

And, it's true, there is a scene in which Rogen beds a semi-conscious Anna Faris in a situation that nearly anybody would find creepy if it happened in real life and not in a movie. But (and I say this as a man who does not find date rape amusing) the scene was also really funny.

The basic premise of O&R is that Rogen is a rent-a-cop in a suburban mall who is trying to (among other things) catch a flasher who has been terrorizing the female shoppers. Rogen (as well as others) has said that his character has a sort of demented, Travis Bickle quality -- the movie is Taxi Driver set in a shopping mall. And once I heard Rogen say that, I found it was almost impossible to think of anything else.

I would have never quite believed this two weeks ago, but Rogen gives a remarkable comic approximation of Robert DeNiro. Rogen's character is aggressively stupid. He leads a completely dysfunctional existence, living in his mother's house (his mother is a drunk) and spending his free time blowing off rounds at the local shooting range. He's a petty tyrant, lording over his domain (the mall), hassling those he dislikes (like the hilarious Aziz Ansari who only has a two minute cameo, but it's comic gold). He lusts after Faris -- the blonde who works a cosmetics counter at the mall -- in the same way that DeNiro pined for Cybill Shepherd. But while there was a small physical spark between DeNiro and Shepherd in Taxi Driver, there is absolutely nothing between Rogen and Faris. He is simply the weird guard who hangs around her counter, making painful small talk.

But despite the fact that Rogen is unapologetically creepy, there is something sort of endearing about him.

It's one of those perverse things -- the fact that Rogen has bravely decided to make his mall cop so unattractive, he becomes somewhat attractive.

The mall cop has such a lack of self awareness, that you almost worry about him. How is such a fool going to make it through life? (But, then, he's of a type that everybody has seen before. The world has plenty of dullards and gun nuts drifting through it. Rogen is merely a bigger, louder, funnier one.) And he's surprisingly resourceful. When Rogen is duped into standing on a empty corner in a bad neighborhood, he beats the living stuffing out of four or five would-be attackers. When he goes up against a battalion of cops, he holds his own (for a few minutes, anyway).

You almost want to stand up and cheer. (Maybe this is because our expectations are so low for this guy.)

None of this negates the fact that Rogen is also an extremely dangerous person. Throughout the movie you never quite know whether to laugh or run screaming out of the theater. (Which almost makes the movie more in line with Todd Solondz's uber-uncomfortable movie Happiness than with Taxi Driver.) The date-rape sequence is only one of a package of things that Rogen does that are downright horrific. He beats; he tasers; he smashes; he even shoots one unfortunate soul in the chest.

O&R's director, Jody Hill, made the decision, however, that most of Rogen's more gruesome actions don't have a tremendous amount of backlash. Halfway through the coital act with Faris, Rogen realizes that Faris looks liked she passed out and he slows, mid-thrust. "Did I tell you to stop, motherfucker?" Faris says -- without opening her eyes.

One could, I suppose, view this as a tremendous copout. But I'm not sure the movie could have worked as a comedy if it was quite that dark. It dances the line between the comedy of uncomfortable and just plain uncomfortable well enough, in my view.

While O&R primarily rests on Rogen's fleshy shoulders, the rest of the cast is also pretty great. There are the portly twin brothers (who are also gun nuts); there's Faris (who's great); there's the Jody Foster-character (a fragile girl who gives Rogen free coffee); there's the lispy Michael Pena; there's the police detective, Ray Liotta, the man Rogen essentially aspires to be. And I haven't even mentioned the soundtrack, which is filled with some real delights. (The Band's version of When I Paint My Masterpiece, and the Pixie's immortal Where is My Mind, which is used to even better effect than it was in Fight Club in possibly the single greatest chase sequence ever filmed.)

By all means, go see this crazed, nutty movie. But I would warn against taking a date.