‘Observe and Report’ is the Blackest of Black Comedies

Observe and Report movie poster

I read an article in the Los Angeles Times which had an interview with Jody Hill, the writer/director of “Observe and Report.” Reading it was the best preparation I got for watching the movie as the trailers made it look like the typical Judd Apatow produced, Seth Rogen starring comedy. However, director Hill didn’t really see it as a comedy, and he said the term “dark comedy” didn’t really apply to the film the way he envisioned it. Hell, even Rogen went out of his way to call the film a “dangerous comedy.” I never would have guessed from the trailers which made the film seem like the average formulaic comedy I was more or less interested in seeing. I should have seen it coming it was not going to be what I expected it to be when I realized that Apatow had nothing to do with this.

If you’re thinking “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” redux, you’re dead wrong. With “Observe and Report,” you need to go in expecting “Taxi Driver” or “One Hour Photo” as if they were comedies. This is a very black comedy. We’re talking Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours” black. It touches on several ever so touchy subjects such as drug abuse, date rape, alcoholism, delusional, and racial stereotypes among others. It is also proof of how comedy can be mined out of places and subjects you would never expect to find it in. Hill and Rogen prove to have a large pair of cojones on them as they take big risks with their subject matter and come out of it with many moments which are frickin’ hilarious. It says a lot about this movie how it can break taboos, many of which will easily offend people, and still have you laughing your ass off at the same time.

Rogen stars as Ronnie Barnhardt, the head of Forest Ridge mall security. From the start, we can see this is a guy with a few screws loose. Along with his fellow mall cops, he laments at the fact none of them are allowed guns on the job. Ronnie is a hero in his own mind, and no one takes the job of what is essentially a “rent a cop” position as seriously as him. Ronnie also longs to join the police force, but he is kept from being accepted due to his bi-polar illness which he treats with the typical medication Scientologists rally against. This is not your typical Rogen character where you wonder if and when he will get the girl. Instead, you wonder if this guy is going to have a psychotic break and end up killing someone before it is too late.

Ronnie’s mission in life, however, becomes crystal clear to him when a flasher exposes himself to the girl of his dreams, makeup counter employee Brandi (Anna Faris). So distraught she is after this attack, Ronnie makes it his mission to catch the flasher before he can attack her again. But then the local police department gets involved in the form of Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta at his overplaying best), and Ronnie sees this as a threat to his mission. The way Ronnie sees it, this is his case and no one else’s. To let the local police take over would be the same as giving up control of the mall. Paul Blart may have taken his job as a mall cop seriously, but he has got nothing on Ronnie Barnhardt.

For Rogen, this movie represents a sharp change of pace. Through movies like “Knocked Up” and “Zack & Miri Make a Porno,” he has perfected the role of lovable loser to the point where you could not see him in any other role. This usually results in a career which starts big and then crashes in record time. I was hoping to see him play some other role because I found him to be one of the funniest actors in quite some time, and I was in no mood to see him crash and burn. With his role in “Observe and Report,” Rogen finally breaks out of his comfort zone to play someone who is anything but lovable. He also never plays the role just for laughs which is a major plus. As Ronnie Barnhardt, he manages to find the heart of this delusional character, and he keeps the audience up with him even as Ronnie’s mental state continues to get worse.

Among the supporting cast in “Observe and Report” is Michael Pena. As Dennis, Ronnie’s second in command and best friend, Pena also goes against type to play a role we have never see him in before. He has proven to be the most dependable of supporting actors in movies like “Crash,” “Shooter,” and “World Trade Center” to name a few. As Dennis, he steals scenes from Rogen as his character ends up taking directions you never expect him to take. This is an inspired performance by Pena, and he serves, however briefly, as Ronnie’s conscience when he sees Ronnie is taking himself WAY too seriously. Dennis’ methods of loosening up Ronnie, however, are anything but safe and legal.

Another inspired performance in “Observe and Report” is from Celia Weston who plays Ronnie’s alcoholic mother who still lets her son live under her roof even though he is well into his 30’s. There is no doubt of how much Weston’s character loves her son even when she is hopelessly drunk, and it leads to where she tells one of Ronnie’s fellow mall cops of how she slept with his friends while he was in high school. This could have been a cruel and clichéd character, but Weston makes it a lot more.

You also have to give a lot of credit to Anna Faris who proves here she is not afraid of going to extreme lengths to get laughs. Throughout the movie, she never tries to sweeten her character of Brandi up like many actresses would. Brandi will easily remind you of all those spoiled rotten bitches you had the misfortune of going to high school with. Many may hate the way her character is treated in the movie, but to a large extent, Brandi brings a lot of it on herself. Like Rogen and Hill, Faris does not shy away from the unpleasant extremes of her role.

Then there is Ray Liotta, who will always be best remembered for playing Henry Hill in “Goodfellas.” As Detective Harrison, Liotta is the perfect counterpoint to Rogen’s mentally unhinged mall cop. His strait-laced character has his shit together, but it doesn’t necessarily make him much better. One of the movie’s best moments has him taking Ronnie on a ride along which ends with him stranding Ronnie on a bad corner with a bunch of crack head drug dealers. How Ronnie ends up handling these dealers is something I would prefer not to spoil for you. Just when you think you know where the scene is going, Hill and Rogen pull the rug right out from under you.

Another really nice performance comes from Collette Wolfe who plays Nell, an employee at the mall’s coffee shop who is somewhat hindered by her leg being in a cast. While Brandi really wants nothing to do with Ronnie, Nell pines for him every time he comes to get his free cup of coffee. She also has to deal with an unsympathetic boss (Patton Oswalt) who picks on her whenever given the opportunity. She is a sweet presence in an otherwise nasty movie which seeks to make you uncomfortable and laugh at the same time. For a moment, I thought this would turn into another tale of unrequited love a la “Rules of Attraction,” but Collette’s character gives Ronnie the emotional grounding he DESPERATLEY needs.

Hill’s biggest success with “Observe and Report” doesn’t lie in just the laughs he gets, but more in the fact he and the actors never just play everything just for laughs. There is no winking at the camera in this film. The actors don’t play it completely straight in this movie, but they take their roles seriously and never appear as if they all know they are in on the joke. If they did, the movie would not be anywhere as effective.

Hill’s breakthrough directorial effort was the movie “The Foot Fist Way” which served as the breakthrough for Danny McBride who went on to appear in “Pineapple Express” and “Tropic Thunder.” It is clear Hill revels in the portrait of people who live in their own world and are oblivious to what the world thinks of them. What Hill does here is ballsy to say the least.

“Observe and Report” also serves as a biting satire of the mall culture which serves as the movie’s setting. It ends up being symbolic of the melting pot which is the United States of America. Cultures of all kinds rub up against each other in the mall, and it unsettles our main character at times. Ronnie ends up having a tense moment with a character he thoughtlessly nicknames Sadamn (played by Aziz Ansari) who has filed a restraining order against Ronnie for past transgresses. This leads to one of the movie’s most insanely funniest moments as they say a barrage of “fuck you’s” to each other. The F-bomb is uttered almost endlessly in this scene to where you think they are going to give “Scarface” a run for its money in terms of how much the word is uttered.

This movie also continues the trend started with movies like “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” of showing the penis in all its tiny glory. The audience I saw it with seemed more shocked by the “throbbing python of love,” as Robin Williams once described it, than they were with Rogen’s character holding a gun in his hand. After all these years, American audiences still prove to be an unknowingly hypocritical bunch as they find themselves more comfortable with the sight of a gun than with the appearance of a sexual organ.

Suffice to say, not everything in the movie works perfectly. The ending where Ronnie defends his place in the mall falls a little flat despite the use of Queen’s music from “Flash Gordon.” And granted, the mix of comedy and action and violence is a tricky road, but it is a road bound to have some inescapable potholes.

Still, when all is said and done, “Observe and Report” is a comedy with big cojones which cannot be easily ignored. It is not a movie for all tastes, but for those who are willing to travel a darkly comic path, there is much to find in this crazy film which dares to imagine a Travis Bickle-like character as a funny person despite himself. Do not say you weren’t warned.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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