Observe and Report
Director : Jody Hill
Screenplay : Jody Hill
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2009
Stars : Seth Rogen (Ronnie Barnhardt), Ray Liotta (Detective Harrison), Michael Peña (Dennis), Anna Faris (Brandi), Dan Bakkedahl (Mark), Jesse Plemons (Charles), John Yuan (John Yuen), Matt Yuan (Matt Yuen), Celia Weston (Mom), Collette Wolfe (Nell), Randy Gambill (Pervert), Alston Brown (Bruce), Cody Midthunder (D-Rock)
Jody Hill’s pitch-black mall-cop comedy Observe and Report is a deeply angry movie, and any significance it has will likely reside in how future historians view it as a silver-screen expression of today’s angry times. It is not surprising, then, that Hill has vocally noted Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), the sine qua non of angry ’70s cinema, as his primary influence, even though he has had made what is ostensibly a comedy. Granted, Observe and Report is hardly a laugh-out-loud comedy, but rather a kind of strange, slightly disconcerting, and at times aggressively insistent wince-inducing comedy that revolves primarily around thick-headed and fundamentally delusional characters acting out primal violence on everyone around them. A good time it is not, but somehow I don’t think it was ever intended to be.
Seth Rogen, sinking deep into a pit of misguided mania, plays the film’s resident Travis Bickle, a suburban mall cop named Ronnie Barnhardt who takes it quite personally when he’s not properly referred to as the “head of mall security.” There is never any explanation of how such an obvious head-case managed to rise to even this meager level of authority or, more importantly, how he manages to maintain it given his ineptitude and psychotic tendencies, but that may very well be the point: It’s the Peter Principle taken to potentially homicidal extremes. Ronnie, who lives at home with his alcoholic mother (Celia Weston), lords over the mall like an avenging angel, especially when a serial flasher (Randy Gambill) starts stalking the parking lot and eventually shows his goods to Brandi (Anna Faris), the dim-bulb cosmetics beauty for whom Ronnie secretly pines. Declaring the flasher’s arrival to be the best thing that has happened to his career, Ronnie sets about solving the “pervert case,” although he is constantly stymied by the intrusion of the actual police, embodied here by Ray Liotta’s increasingly exasperated Detective Harrison.
As a follow-up to The Foot Fist Way (2006), a micro-budget indie that got bigger-than-usual play due to the support of Will Ferrell, Observe and Report continues Hill’s comedic undermining of masculine pretensions, although here he drives his point home with such intensity that you end up feeling like you’re being assaulted. This is partially due to Rogen’s performance, which is genuinely impressive in the way it delves so deep into Ronnie’s bipolar pathos without any care for either audience identification or sympathy. He’s an underdog you don’t want to root for, and he’s surrounded by characters who are equally gross in their own unique ways: If it isn’t Brandi’s self-centered crudity, it’s Detective Harrison’s mean-spirited invectives or Ronnie’s mom’s proud proclamation that she used to sleep with all of Ronnie’s teenage friends. Even Ronnie’s “right-hand man” Dennis (Michael Peña), a lisping fellow mall cop who supports every one of his bud’s misguided efforts, turns out to have a particularly ugly side, which leaves only Nell (Collette Wolfe), a “born again virgin” who works at the mall’s donut shop and inexplicably seems to like Ronnie, even though he treats her so thoughtlessly.
At some point, you have to wonder what, exactly, the point of Observe and Report is. Perhaps it works best as an evocation of the current sense of impotence that so many Americans are feeling in the wake of constant war and recession. In that regard, Ronnie may be Hill’s expression of the bankruptcy of the American dream, where get-up-and-go hurrah is revealed to be nothing more than delusions of grander. More likely, Hill just wants to shock you in myriad ways, and he is clearly dead-set on evoking a constant sense of unease that laughs only serve to emphasize, not dispel. When he goes for an outright gag, it is usually at the expense of something that is inherently not funny (particularly a quick scene that can only be described as date rape), which suggests that his primary goal is not comedy, but challenging the audience’s limits. The film is probably best summarized by a particularly meta moment in which Detective Harrison sets up Ronnie’s humiliation and has a colleague hide in the closet to hear the fun, but halfway through the colleague walks out with a drawn face, declaring that he thought it would be funny, but it turned out to be just sad. That, better than anything, describes the experience of watching Observe and Report and trying to digest its bizarre, discomfiting mixture of the profane and the pathetic.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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