Seth Rogen as Ronnie Barnhardt
Ray Liotta as Detective Harrison
Michael Peña as Dennis
Anna Faris as Brandi
Dan Bakkedahl as Mark
Jesse Plemons as Charles
John Yuan as John Yuen
Matt Yuan as Matt Yuen
Celia Weston as Mom
Collette Wolfe as Nell
Randy Gambill as Pervert
Alston Brown as Bruce
Cody Midthunder as D-Rock
Aziz Ansari as Saddamn
Directed by Jody Hill
As a comedy, “Observe and Report” has such a dark and bizarre tone that it makes you unsure whether you can laugh at some of the jokes, although the diverse array of dysfunctional characters does eventually win you over.
Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) is the head of security at the Forest Ridge Mall in Conway, California, and he takes his job very seriously. When the mall is plagued by a flasher and a string of robberies, the mall manager calls the police, and Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta) immediately starts infringing on Ronnie’s turf. With the added competition, Ronnie is determined to solve the cases, while pursuing his dreams of being a real police officer in order to win the heart of make-up girl Brandi (Anna Faris).
It’s been less than two years since Seth Rogen made his debut as a leading man in Judd Apatow’s “Knocked Up” and five movies later, he’s breaking into De Niro territory with a dark anti-hero character that’s not as pleasant or easily liked as his previous roles. It’s certainly a challenging departure, one that pushes the boundaries of what people might find funny. Much of that comes from filmmaker Jody Hill, whose specialty seems to be jerks with delusions of grandeur, going by his previous two efforts, “The Foot Fist Way” and the HBO comedy “East Bound Down.” In both those cases, Hill was paired with Danny McBride, who has turned that type of character into an art form; Seth Rogen on the other hand is going against type here, making it much harder to immediately embrace his character.
The first question on most minds is whether we really need another mall cop comedy so soon after Kevin James’ plebeian “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” but it would be a waste of time comparing the two movies, even if there are enough similarities in the general concept, the characters and their situations that you have to wonder what in the ether has suddenly made these characters ripe for the picking.
“Observe and Report” is a different movie mainly because Ronnie Barnhardt, for better or worse, is no Paul Blart. He’s not the hapless but loveable everyman that audiences can immediately relate to, being more of an anti-hero driven by a dark and tortured soul, more like a Travis Bickle or Rupert Pupkin. That being said, it’s quickly evident that Rogen is no De Niro, and it’s much harder for him to sell this type of character. The general tone is closer to “Pineapple Express” than the realism of Rogen’s work with Apatow and Kevin Smith. Gone is Rogen’s trademark jovial chuckle, as he tries to sell the character as a dark hero, even providing a voiceover that would have been more at home in “The Dark Knight” than any comedy, and he does an impressive job with the action scenes. Once we start spending time at home with Ronnie and his alcoholic white trash mother, played by a shockingly foul-mouthed Celia Weston, it becomes much clearer why he’s so screwed up.
Otherwise, there isn’t much of a plot beyond a fairly typical character arc in which Ronnie has to overcome certain obstacles to reach his goals. Instead, Hill and his cast have created a series of loosely-related bits, some that work, others that go nowhere. If you’ve been to the official site, you’ve probably already seen some of the funniest jokes, the rest of the comedy revolving around low brow physical comedy, alcohol and drug use, and excessive violence and swearing, the lowest point coming in the form of an extended “f*ck you” debate between Ronnie and his Arabic adversary who works at the mall. There’s been so much intelligence brought to comedy in recent years that much of this seems like a throwback to the lowest common denominator.
Fortunately, there are enough amusing characters around Rogen to help support the comedy, like Michael Peña breaking away from his penchant for serious drama to play Ronnie’s colleague Dennis, an exaggerated Latino. It’s a nice change for the actor, similar to Celia Weston’s typecast-breaking role as Ronnie’s mother, who actually does add poignancy to what is essentially a one-joke character. On the other hand, Anna Faris isn’t really stretching much as the ditzy airhead Brandi, nor is Ray Liotta as Ronnie’s arch-nemesis on the force, as much as each character does bring to Ronnie’s journey. It’s immediately obvious that Ronnie would be much better off with Nell, the girl at the coffee shop played by Collete Wolfe–a wonderful Hill regular in the Amy Adams mold–rather then with the shallow and dim-witted Brandi, but there wouldn’t be much of a movie if Ronnie didn’t learn the inevitable for himself.
Besides Nell, most of the characters show up briefly then disappear, not really allowing any of them to develop much. A couple of key cameos include Patton Oswalt as Nell’s boss, while Danny McBride steals his one scene with Rogen, much like he did in “Pineapple Express,” making you wonder how much better this movie might have been with him in the lead.
Hill isn’t a bad filmmaker, having similar Southern indie sensibilities as Pineapple Express” director David Gordon Green. At times, his strength appears to lie in his ability to assemble a string of cool rock tunes to enhance what’s happening on screen. This is certainly going to be one of those must-have soundtracks filled with many songs that will immediately remind you of this movie, but one can’t help think that Hill is falling back on Tarantino’s tricks at winning audiences with music when the writing isn’t as strong as it should be.
Even with its dark undertones, the movie doesn’t really get daring until the last act, which ultimately saves the movie from being a complete loss. Following its fairly typical character arc, Ronnie has his inevitable fall from grace and is given a chance to redeem himself, leading to a final confrontation with the flasher, a hilarious moment on par with the high points in “Borat.” (Put it this way. Randy Gambill, whoever you are, you’re either going to have to be getting a lot of work or you’ll never be working ever again.)
The Bottom Line:
Jody Hill and Seth Rogen’s comedy certainly tries to create its own unique tone of comedy, though it’s one that takes some time before one can fully appreciate it. Maybe if this had preceded Kevin James’ own take on mall enforcement, it might have felt more groundbreaking, but just being darker and funnier than “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” doesn’t really amount to much. There are enough laughs to make it worthwhile, though not enough to make it unforgettable.