Observe and Report
2009, R, 86 min. Directed by Jody Hill. Starring Seth Rogen, Anna Faris, Michael Peña, Ray Liotta, Celia Weston, Jesse Plemons, John Yuan, Matt Yuan, Collette Wolfe.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 10, 2009
Although the obvious thing to do is compare Observe and Report with 2009’s previous mall-cop comedy (and breakout success) Paul Blart: Mall Cop, the more apt comparison would be to director Ben Stiller’s darker comedies that push the boundaries of awkward embarrassment – something along the lines of The Cable Guy. The central character in both Observe and Report and Paul Blart is a shopping-mall security guard who suffers from delusions of grandeur, and both roles are played by comic actors. However, in writer/director Hill’s Observe and Report, the guard, Ronnie Barnhardt (Rogen), is a bipolar gun nut who also has suffered damage from an alcoholic mother (Weston), an absent father, and his difficulties with the opposite sex. To add to his problems, there’s a flasher on the loose in the mall parking lot, who, by the end of the movie, is running rampant through the mall with his full frontal exposed and flapping apace (there’s also a Polaroid of the culprit's penis, which Ronnie flashes frequently during his search). The flasher appears to be a higher priority on Ronnie’s capture list than the mysterious thieves who rob various mall stores during the night. Such is the world of comedy. Here Rogen demonstrates that he is capable of portraying characters more complicated than his previously essayed affable, everyguy stoners. Still, his range is not huge, which may be part of the reason Ronnie’s vigilantism takes such a dark turn. More likely, however, is that the unevenness is due to the guiding aesthetic of Hill (The Foot Fist Way). Subplots come and go with zero regard for narrative integrity – for example, when lisping security guard Dennis (Peña) uncharacteristically shows Ronnie a whole different approach to life, solves one of the mysteries, and then disappears from the movie. Scenes with Ronnie’s mom, who drinks until she passes out on the living room floor and wets herself, are painful to watch and add nothing of narrative value; other key characters, such as Ronnie’s would-be paramour, Brandi (Faris), and his actual cop nemesis (Liotta), are played as one-note foils – total ditz and ball of anger, respectively. Hill’s uninventive visual style further removes any possibility of surprise or ingenuity with its rote shot/reverse shot gambit. (The film’s only visual surprise is the frequency with which the guilty penis is flashed … but, hey, you gotta take your comedy where you find it.) Midway through, a character remarks as he leaves the scene of a takedown of Ronnie, “I thought this was going to be funny, but it’s just kind of sad.” The same thing is true about the movie as a whole.