Friday, October 28, 2011

The struggle for the soul of Seth Rogen

After watching 50/50 last week, I've seen just about everything Seth Rogen has done.

There are some unwatched stragglers, such as You, Me and Dupree and Fanboys, and a good amount of his voice work (Shrek the Third, Horton Hears a Who! and Kung Fu Panda 2). But I've seen all of his essential roles.

So, I thought I'd accrued enough evidence to struggle with his soul.

See, Seth Rogen almost always plays some variation of himself. He hasn't yet shown up as a marine biologist or a brain surgeon, and in one of his only departures from the comedy genre, The Green Hornet, he plays the slacker heir to a newspaper fortune. Which could very easily be characterized as a variation on himself.

But each time I sit down to a Seth Rogen movie, I don't know if I'm going to get the good Seth Rogen or the bad Seth Rogen.

And there can be such little difference between the two of them, sometimes you have to look closely to know for sure.

Ever since his career went through the roof following 2007's Knocked Up, Rogen has exercised more control over how his characters are portrayed than most mere actors. (Sometimes too much control, if you are to believe the theory that a power struggle between himself and director Michel Gondry led to the failure of The Green Hornet.) Because he has aspirations as a writer and a producer, and because he has already gotten several stories based in some way on his own life brought to the big screen, his fingerprints are usually all over even the movies where he's not a writer or producer. He's just accustomed to that level of influence.

What's useful about this, from an analytical standpoint, is that it allows us to give credit -- or blame -- directly to him, in terms of how his characters come across.

As I've been thinking about this piece, I've formulated alter egos for the two sides of his personality. They're based both on character traits and (sort of) appearance. Just go with me on it and see what you think. The good Seth Rogen is kind of like Shia LaBeouf. He's witty, charismatic, fun-loving, even cute, and he can be a legitimate leading man. The bad Seth Rogen, however, is like Danny McBride. He's crass, mean and ugly.

(Hey, if there were advances in human biology, and LaBeouf and McBride could have a child together, it might look sort of like Rogen, right?)

So come with me as I take a stroll through Rogen's major works, and explore whether it's Rogen's inner LaBeouf or Rogen's inner McBride that comes shining or barreling through.

The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005, Judd Apatow)
Which Rogen? LaBeouf

There may be no better metaphor for Rogen's career than our introduction to him in this movie. We meet him while he's describing watching a woman having sex with a horse in Mexico. Clearly, this guy is sort of a dirtbag, because he went to a sex show involving a horse. But as he describes more, you realize he's sort of horrified by what he saw. Yep, this guy is just like you and me. He's rough around the edges, but he's a pussycat. There may still be no more enjoyable Rogen performance on screen.

Knocked Up (2007, Judd Apatow)
Which Rogen? LaBeouf

Rogen has Apatow and Virgin to thank for his first leading role, and he knocks it out of the park (pun sort of intended). Knocked Up is a notch below Virgin in terms of quality, but it's still fully committed to playing Rogen as a sympathetic shlub. He's not perfect and he will probably say and do some raunchy things, but there's no doubt that he's heeding the advice of the angel on his shoulder, rather than the devil.

Superbad (2007, Greg Mottola)
Which Rogen? McBride

Superbad is the first example of Rogen taking a significant role behind the camera, as he and Evan Goldberg wrote the screenplay based on their own lives. Of course, Rogen does not play himself in the movie -- that responsibility goes to Jonah Hill, already trending toward becoming a mini-Rogen (who could one day eclipse the regular Rogen). Rogen plays a cop who has more in common with a drunken frat boy than with a law enforcement official, and he and Bill Hader (and Christopher Mintz-Plasse) are undoubtedly the best parts of this movie. Rogen gets his first McBride tag, however, because the character based on him is a crass douchebag. They try to make Hill's character more sympathetic, but it doesn't really fly. Also, that joke about the girl's menstrual blood is just gross and mean.

Pineapple Express (2008, David Gordon Green)
Which Rogen? McBride

It helps with the McBride label that McBride himself actually shows up here -- in fact, I think this is when I first became aware of Danny McBride. Now I don't have to retroactively apply the label anymore. Although Rogen's character is supposed to be sort of a nice guy, he's got two big character flaws that significantly hamper his ability to be sympathetic: 1) He doesn't really like the drug dealer. That creative decision never sat well with me. I mean, James Franco's character seems like a lot of fun to hang out with. Yet they decide to make Rogen embarrassed to be seen with him. I'd say it should be the other way around, buddy. 2) He's dating a high school girl. It's weird and random and never satisfactorily justified. Granted, I would also have a hard time not going after Amber Heard. But it doesn't excuse it.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008, Kevin Smith)
Which Rogen? LaBeouf

Welcome back, Shia. Smith harnesses the perfect Rogen in this movie -- crass yet lovable. The character has to vocalize all sorts of filthy words in trying to come up with a variation on a familiar movie title for the name of their porn flick, and he's got a great line where she shouts, full of creative enthusiasm, "We're gonna launch arching ropes of jism all over this motherfucker!" He's got several other great one-liners about sex and human nature. Yet this guy is fundamentally a decent guy; an innocent. For some reason this one line sums him up perfectly: Their water has been shut off, and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) asks him to get some water from the toilet in order to wash the shampoo out of her hair. He peeks under the lid, and reports back to her, with wide eyes and a wonderfully childlike sense of concern: "There's poo in there!" Even more wonderful that he didn't get that she was talking about the back part of the toilet, not the front.

Observe and Report (2009, Jody Hill)
Which Rogen? McBride

Evil Danny returns in Observe and Report, which is appropriate as it's written and directed by McBride collaborator Jody Hill. Rogen plays a mall cop whose every instinct is basically smarmy or misguided. He effectively date-rapes the girl he's been crushing on (Anna Faris) when he has sex with her while she's too drunk. And the movie culminates with a series of increasingly awful choices that are almost too good to spoil here. You might notice I said "too good," and yes, it's true -- through all of this pervasive and sometimes awful McBride-ness, I sort of like Observe and Report. Perhaps that's just in comparison to 2009's other mall cop movie, the horrendous (and inexplicably popular) Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

Monsters vs. Aliens (2009, Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon)
Which Rogen? LaBeouf

I skipped over one previous animated movie in which Rogen had appeared that I'd seen, Kung Fu Panda, because quite honestly, I can't remember his contribution to that movie. But this one was worth focusing on, because it finds Rogen at his lovable best. The character he plays, B.O.B., is literally a moving pile of blue gelatinous goo. But he's such an innocent, and Rogen brings such enthusiasm to the role, that the character is instantly contagious. It's a very sweet film and I've seen it twice.

Funny People (2009, Judd Apatow)
Which Rogen? LaBeouf

I guess -- right? If I remember this movie correctly, and I'd say I probably don't, Rogen's character is pretty decent here, since Adam Sandler's character is already doing all the McBride bits. But to be honest, his performance in this movie didn't make enough of an impression on me for me to judge it on the admittedly imperfect LaBeouf/McBride Scale. Perhaps that means it's somewhere in the middle.

The Green Hornet (2011, Michel Gondry)
Which Rogen? McBride

McBride comes back with a vengeance in this misbegotten superhero movie. In every other Rogen movie I'd seen, I believe there was an attempt to make something sympathetic about his character. Not here. On the surface we're supposed to think that a slacker-stoner grabbing his destiny to become a crimefighter makes him noble in some way, but really, this is an awful character. He's basically a jerk to everyone, particularly his loyal sidekick Kato (Jay Chou), who not only does all the useful crime fighting, but has all the useful moral scruples as well. Rogen's Britt Reid is basically a yammering asshole who eventually gets into an extremely protracted brawl with Kato, which lasts about 15 minutes -- over a girl (Cameron Diaz) he's done nothing to deserve, mind you. This movie lasted about two hours longer than I wanted it to.

Paul (2011, Greg Mottola)
Which Rogen? LaBeouf

How unlikely that Rogen would return to LaBeouf form in a movie directed by a guy (Mottola) who had not only directed one of his previous McBride efforts (Superbad), but also directed one of the meanest movies I've seen in a couple years (Adventureland). Rogen's role as the titular alien is all heart. I was sure I'd find an alien voiced by Seth Rogen to be insufferable, but just the opposite. From the very first moment he opened his mouth, I knew that his character had been excellently conceived and executed: an alien who crash-landed on Earth 70 years ago, meaning he's had the time to develop the speech patterns and cultural references of a modern American citizen. The thing is, neither is he soft-pedaled -- he's got some rough edges to be sure. But as in every other frame of this movie, the heart shines through.

50/50 (2011, Jonathan Levine)
Which Rogen? McBride

Those who love this film -- and there seem to be quite a few -- may differ with my assessment of Rogen's persona in this movie, which is the second movie (after Superbad) that is nakedly based on something from Rogen's real life. If you don't know (how couldn't you), Rogen is basically playing himself in this movie, as Joseph Gordon-Levitt's cancer-stricken Adam is based on Rogen's real-life friend Will Reiser, who was similarly stricken. Rogen played about the same role in Reiser's life as he does here in Adam's -- which, it would seem, was a horn dog who frequently tried to get Reiser laid as some kind of defense mechanism against fully acknowledging that his friend had cancer. More generously, the role of the real Rogen and his character here was to be with his stricken friend through thick and thin, but Rogen chooses a really unsympathetic way to portray that here. Two moments stand out for the discomfort they produced in me. The first is when Kyle and Adam are out late, trying to put in the time in order to go home with a couple girls they met at a club. Unsurprisingly, Adam is tired and he tries to cut the evening short. Kyle explodes at him and says "Don't waste my time, man!" Maybe you're supposed to peel away that line and get some deeper meaning out of it, but on the surface, it's cold and selfish. Then there's the moment (earlier in the script) when Kyle sees Adam's cheating girlfriend, played by Bryce Dallas Howard (and don't get me started on the mistakes made in portraying her character), and goes off on her at an art gallery to his date, essentially an innocent bystander. "I nailed that c___!" he says, referring to photographing her in the act of cheating. He then later shows up at Adam's house and engages in an embarrassing scene in which he busts her in a way that's just dripping with meanness and schadenfreude. Kyle may be looking out for his friend's best interests, but he certainly has a funny way of going about it.

So which Rogen will we get next?

It's hard to say. But it seems clear that Rogen is acutely aware of never coming across as overly soft, overly squishy. I like that instinct in him, the desire to keep himself rough around the edges in order to never sell out -- the desire to remain essentially a dirtbag, even if that dirtbag sometimes has a heart of gold.

But he's almost pathologically compelled to push the envelope in how unlikable he's willing to be. According to yours truly, he pushes it too far, too often for my liking.

In the fight for Rogen's soul between Metaphorical Shia LaBeouf and Metaphorical Danny McBride, let's hope that Shia is the victor -- but that Danny can continue to get in a few licks from time to time.

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