Ever since the red band trailer debuted a few months ago, there's been an uncomfortable question lingering around Observe and Report: is Seth Rogen a rapist in it? The trailer showed a brief scene of Rogen's character Ronnie pounding away in bed at Anna Faris' character Brandi, who is clearly passed out with a trail of vomit coming from her mouth. When he briefly stops to consider that she's asleep, she mumbles "Why are you stopping, motherfucker?" End scene.
Turns out, that's really the entire scene, and now we're faced with a mainstream comedy in which the main character, played by a beloved movie star, is totally, 100% a rapist. Women in Hollywood has already demanded that their readers boycott the movie, while Vulture argues that the scene isn't even that bad given the other awful stuff Ronnie does over the course of film.
And this may be the moment where I have to hand in my feminist credentials and run away from the people with pitchforks, but here goes: I don't think the scene is that bad. Rather, it works within the world and the tone of the movie overall, in which we are handed a main character-- Ronnie Barnhardt, mall cop-- and tested repeatedly as we watch him do a series of horrendous, ridiculous, and illegal things. The comparisons to Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver aren't entirely accurate, but point at the basic idea: we like Ronnie, we even identify with him a little through his insanity, and then that affection is thrown back in our faces when he truly crosses the line, over and over again.
I wrote earlier about how Observe and Report is a satire, a glimpse at a life that functions entirely as a result of American machismo, and is ruined by it. Ronnie shoots people at point blank range, does heavy drugs, attacks children, is blatantly racist and, yes, rapes a woman, because he believes that's what coming to him as a powerful, American man. He's a sympathetic character, living at home with his mom and genuinely caring for her and wanting only do to the right thing; he becomes fascinating when that essential goodness is overridden by his innate machismo and desire to live up to a certain cultural standard to kick ass and take names.
Ronnie is too dumb, too proud, and too insecure to think that Brandi can't really give her consent when she's stumbling drunk. Of course he's not doing the right thing, just like Charles Foster Kane wasn't being noble by forcing Susan into an opera career, and Tyler Durden wasn't really making the best choice by blowing up the office building. The best, most complex characters in movie history are the ones that do awful things, that challenge your automatic affection for them, and Observe and Report is a smart, maybe even brilliant, movie because it brings you to exactly that point.
The fact that it's a comedy complicates things, obviously, and I admit I was uncomfortable when the audience burst out laughing to see Faris passed out, drooling vomit, while Rogen was on top of her. But at no point did I doubt that writer-director Jody Hill, and Rogen too, really get it, and understand that what they're making is a satire and critique that happens to be shockingly, distastefully funny. Does this mean that every audience member will be in on it too, and understand that Ronnie really is raping Brandi, and that's not OK ever? Probably not. But Hill and Rogen are taking a risk, and for moviegoers interested in complex, sympathetic, even dastardly characters, it really pays off.