Wednesday, April 15, 2009

On "Observe and Report" and the sweet sorrow of striving

[Note: contains moderate spoilers for Observe and Report, Nashville, Bottle Rocket and The King of Comedy.]

I’m a fan of stories about people who believe they’re meant to be something they very obviously are not. I’m thinking of folks like aspiring comedian Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy, would-be criminal Dignan in Bottle Rocket or striving country singer Sueleen Gay in
Nashville. These are characters who clearly have little to no aptitude for their chosen professions, but that never for a second makes them doubt that they are destined for greatness.

Hollywood’s latest take on this phenomenon, Observe and Report, doesn’t fully work as a film. Jody Hill’s story of Ronnie, an awkward, bipolar mall security guard who dreams of being a real cop, pulls off the odd feat of being simultaneously too dark and too wacky for its own good. It’s like Taxi Driver cross-bred with Napoleon Dynamite, with some borderline date-rape stirred in just for nastiness’ sake. Still, Seth Rogen’s seething, self-loathing portrayal of Ronnie struck a nerve with the struggling artist in me. I think that any decent artist believes deep down that he or she was destined for creative greatness. Likewise, I think most honest artists would admit to being terrified that they’re really just talentless, delusional hacks chasing a pipe dream.

Personally, I dream of being a beloved writer, or at least a cult favorite. For me, that dream incorporates an endless cycle of arrogance and envy. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve read a poorly worded article in a national publication and thought, “I could do so much better than that.” Even when I read pieces by writers I admire, I often think, “That’s great, but I’m just as witty as this guy. Where’s my nationally syndicated column?” Of course, there are also the times when I read a particularly well-written piece and think, “Damn, this is so far beyond my capabilities that I should just pack it in and go back to slinging coffee.”

The appeal of characters like Ronnie and his brethren is that they never have that last reaction, at least not until reality gives them a swift kick in the grill. In Ronnie’s case, the real facts of his situation don’t sink in until he flunks the police department’s psychological assessment and a receives a direct rebuke from the cop who’s been his mentor/rival. For Sueleen, the comedown is a degrading nightclub performance where she realizes she’s been hired to strip, not sing. For Dignan, it’s the total collapse of his grand heist scheme and a betrayal by one of his trusted confidants.

The wildcard here is Rupert Pupkin, an apparent loser who does everything wrong in his quest for stardom but still comes through when the chips are down. It’s the Pupkins of the world who keep the Ronnies striving. For every few thousand questionably talented dreamers, there’s a Tay Zonday, a William Hung or a Mark Borchardt who achieves a certain modicum of success. If you’re cool with attaining fame as something of a sideshow attraction, that’s got to be reassuring.

So where does that leave a guy like me? As I’ve noted here before, I’m a pretty successful fellow by most yardsticks. I’ve got a happy marriage, a reliable car, a sturdy house and a steady job. I should have very little to complain about, but I’m not going to be satisfied until I have that fabled “big break” that will vault me to the next plateau. I guess that’s another trait I have in common with those fictional touchpoints: we all just keep on striving, mainly because we don’t know any other way.

At the moment, I have one saving grace from the fear of failure a film like Observe and Report instills in me. I’m fairly certain that, unlike Ronnie et al, I’m actually good at what I do, and perhaps even better than most. If you have any evidence to the contrary, I’ll thank you to keep it to yourself. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from these films, it’s that maintaining the delusion is generally much more pleasant than the alternative.

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