Observe and Report (United States, 2009)

April 10, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Observe and Report Poster

Probably every review written of Observe and Report will mention, in one context or another, Paul Blart: Mall Cop. The connection is understandable: both are satirical looks at the trials and tribulations of life as a private security guard (a.k.a. "rent-a-cop"). That's where the similarities end, however. Paul Blart is genial, good-natured, and a little silly - a perfect family feature. Observe and Report is none of those things. It's dark and demented, twisted and perverse - the kind of motion picture that will find a cadre of devout supporters but risks mainstream derision. For Seth Rogen, everyone's favorite lovable loser, this represents a daring reach beyond his comfort zone. This is Rogen's Punch Drunk Love, a feature that may cause consternation within his die-hard fan base but which will open the eyes of those who expected this to be just another dumb, sophomoric comedy filled with lame jokes and half-baked characterizations. It takes guts to make a dark comedy that works on its own terms, and writer/director Jody Hill shows no fear.

The film starts out with a bait-and-switch. Initially, it looks like Rogen is playing yet another in a line of likeable sad-sacks. In this case, he's Ronnie Barnhardt, Mall Cop. He takes his job seriously and runs the mall like his private fiefdom. He has four underlings - second-in-command Dennis (Michael Peña), the Yuen twins (John and Matt Yuan) and Charles (Jesse Plemons) - who view him as their fearless leader. Ronnie is insanely infatuated with cosmetics girl Brandi (Anna Faris), who sees him as a drag and a boor. Nell (Collette Wolfe), the woman who is genuinely interested in Ronnie, is too plain and good-natured for him to notice except when he wants his daily morning free coffee. When two crimes occur during Ronnie's watch - a parking lot flasher and a rash of night robberies - Ronnie finds his world invaded by outsiders. He views the police, represented by Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta), to be unwelcome interlopers, and becomes infatuated with the old maxim: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

Tonally, Observe and Report is strikingly similar to Bad Santa. Both films feature warped anti-heroes whose socially unacceptable behavior becomes the source of biting satire and less sophisticated comedy. Those looking for copious "laugh out loud" moments may be disappointed by what Observe and Report has to offer. Yes, there are some funny set pieces, but the movie is more about incisive parody of malls, police, and today's "gun culture" than it is an endless series of lowbrow jokes and gags. Rogen succeeds in making Ronnie, who initially seems like a harmless dufus, into a creepy individual. Here's a guy who lives with his perpetually drunk mother (Celia Weston), doesn't think twice about date raping a girl who has vomited all over herself, and liberally spews racial epithets and "fuck you's." (There's one scene in which that un-rhyming couplet is uttered about 30 times.) Yet he craves respect and adulation and somehow always sees himself as "the good guy." At one point, he is called delusional and that sums him up in a word. The movie is designed to make viewers a little uncomfortable - that fuels the humor and provides the edge.

Like Bad Santa, Observe and Report offers a form of redemption to its main character without seeming to sell out. The ending is wink-wink, nudge-nudge tongue-in-cheek. It's the kind of thing that could easily be mistaken for a conventional denouement until you examine all that comes before it. Observe and Report is about pushing the envelope and defying conventions. How else to explain a climax in which a fat, naked man is seen from a frequently full-frontal perspective as he streaks through a mall. The joke here is that people are more terrified of a naked man than a psycho pseudo-cop, and it highlights the country's preference for violence over nudity. The penis is more frightening that the subsequent gunshot. Observe and Report is often subversive in ways that are not immediately apparent.

Rogen is perfect for the role in the same way that Adam Sandler was perfect for Punch Drunk Love. The baggage he brings to the movie sets up expectations that are effectively deflated. I was growing weary of the Rogen who has been dominating screens since The 40-Year-Old Virgin; it's good to see him doing something new. Ray Liotta finally gets to do his over-the-top, frothing-at-the-mouth cop routine in a comedy, where it works much better than in a thriller. And Anna Faris proves she can get down and dirty with the best of them. After this, no one will think of her as "the cute girl" again.

Observe and Report is being mis-marketed, with trailers depicting it as yet another screwball Rogen film or as a slightly more raunchy version of Paul Blart. Expectations along those lines could lead to an unnerving experience. Approach Observe and Report as a dark, nasty motion picture that rarely cheats for laughs and doesn't pull many punches. It falls short of brilliant but it's a lot more daring than what passes for "dark comedy" these days, and it reminds us that "feel bad" comedies may not always be as funny as "feel good" ones but, when they work, they can ultimately be more satisfying.

Observe and Report (United States, 2009)

Director: Jody Hill
Cast: Seth Rogen, Anna Faris, Ray Liotta, Celia Weston, Michael Peña, Collette Wolfe, John Yuan, Matt Yuan, Jesse Plemons
Screenplay: Jody Hill
Cinematography: Tim Orr
Music: Joseph Stephens
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 1:25
U.S. Release Date: 2009-04-10
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Nudity, Violence, Sexual Situations, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1