Observe and Report
Originally published on GreenCine Guru
Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of 5): ***
Jody Hill's Observe and Report is a tough nut to crack about a tough nut who cracks. The dark, dark comedy, which Hill wrote and directed, is a more subversive take on the bedraggled mall cop comedy than patrons watching it (ironically) in mall multiplexes probably expected, so it's little surprise it wasn't a huge box office hit. But because Observe is more challenging, in both good and bad ways, it's far more interesting because of it.
Seth Rogen plays Ronnie Barnhardt, a mall security guard with delusions of grandeur who becomes obsessed with a serial flasher accosting unsuspecting mall patrons. Ronnie is also quite taken with an airheaded, self-involved cosmetics counter girl (played unforgettably by Anna Faris, who does this better than anyone these days), seeing himself as her knight in shining armor after she is traumatized from a run-in with the flasher (Randy Gambill, now a Jody Hill regular). From there, Ronnie has to work with -- or more accurately around -- a policeman (Ray Liotta) assigned to the case, as well as deal with his own personal demons the whole case brings out of him.
Even if he still doesn't display a great amount of range, this may be Rogen's best performance, as it's not easy to make you care about a guy who behaves this reprehensibly -- he's racist, paranoid and doesn't take direction well from others, for starters -- but he gets under your skin. A scene where he does a psychological profile interview to fulfill his dream of making the police force is more heartbreaking than funny, especially given how honest Ronnie is in revealing his past transgressions. (Thankfully, too; makes you wonder how many future cops get let in if they're dishonest in answering those questions, but never mind.) A few brief scenes with Ronnie and his sweet but alcoholic mother (the ubiquitous but underrated Celia Weston) also skirt the line between funny and depressing.
The film unabashedly takes after Taxi Driver in that regard, presenting a new sort of Travis Bickle, a fully human but often contemptible character who you can't help but be fascinated by; even if Rogen's Ronnie is still more comic than Bickle and even if O&R is not as important a film as Taxi Driver, it does capture well a bi-polar character's downward spiral brought on by both paranoia and a very real feeling that society doesn't understand, or give a shit about, them.
A scene where Ronnie finally manages a pseudo-date with Faris' Brandi is like the knucklehead dining with the bubblehead, but Rogen and Faris turn it into an inspired, unforgettably pathetic date, even if it ends in disturbing fashion, an unsettling scene that is the subject of much debate. While the film doesn't pass judgment on Ronnie's behavior here, it seemed clear to me the audience isn't meant to support it. Still, it's discomfiting, and hard to find it all that funny. The film does occasionally have trouble walking the line between caring about its characters and deriding them, an issue that sometimes pop up in Hill's other projects as well.
The climax may not have the power of a Scorsese film but it's a far cry from the disposable Paul Blart Mall Cop, too. (Without getting too spoiler-ish here, I will add that I didn't quite buy the Ronnie vs. Flasher resolution, but I did respect the film's character consistency and refusal to go too maudlin.)
Besides Faris' breathlessly funny Brandi, Observe and Report's sharp supporting cast includes Liotta, bringing his best temperamental exasperation to the table; Michael Pena (World Trade Center) as Ronnie's cohort and partner-in-crime (as it were); comedian/actor Patton Oswalt as an asshole manager of a chain Cin-a-Bun knockoff; Friday Night Lights' Jesse Plemons as a more even-keeled mall cop; Parks and Rec's Aziz Ansari, very funny as a foul-mouthed, smooth salesman and arch-nemesis of Ronnie's; and a very sweet Collette Wolfe as the cashier who Ronnie should be more interested in if he could get his head out of the Charles Bronson movie landscape in which its planted.
One frustrating side-note: this DVD from Warner Brothers comes sans extras, and I particularly would've liked a commentary from Hill and Rogen over some of the more controversial scenes. I'm sure down the road they'll do a "special edition" with that included, but this one feels like a rush job. Still, for fans of very black comedy this future cult movie is worth a rental.