Observe and Report opens with Levon Helm wailing, "Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble" as the daily goings-on at a run-of-the-mill shopping mall fill the screen. This is a tip-off that this second film from writer-director Jody Hill (The Foot Fist Way) aims to be more than another cheapie broad comedy, but Hill's film can't quite live up to its social/satiric ambitions.
Apparently, random feature film topics come in twos — volcanoes, asteroids, Truman Capote, now mall cops. Observe and Report, which stars Seth Rogen as Ronnie Barnhardt, the taser-toting "supervisor of mall security" of the Forest Ridge Mall, follows Paul Blart: Mall Cop, a big hit for star Kevin James earlier this year. Having missed the cultural phenomenon that was Blart, I can't compare the two, but I do feel safe assuming that Observe and Report is a far darker comedy.
Hill writes the Ronnie character as a mall-culture Travis Bickle but played for uncomfortable laughs. This troubled man with a gun doesn't want to wipe the scum off the streets, he wants to sweep the perverts, hustlers, and pedantic food-court managers from the mall — not realizing that he's actually worse than the evil he sees — even going undercover to do so. As Ronnie says in his Bickle-esque voiceover: "I live by a code of my own invention. In these dark times, the world has no use for another scared man."
Lost in his dead-end job, Ronnie sees a chance at something better when a flasher starts dangling his privates at women around the mall. "I think this pervert might be the best thing that ever happened to me," Ronnie declares. And it's true — it gives Ronnie a sense of professional purpose and helps his love life by allowing him to take advantage of a discombobulated cosmetics-counter bimbo (Anna Farris) who had disdained him.
Perhaps the sketchiest comedy protagonist since Billy Bob Thornton's "Bad Santa," Ronnie is a wounded, violent, bipolar man-child. This role drains the self-awareness from the more typical Rogen character as seen in movies like Pineapple Express and Knocked Up, where the ubiquitous star played essentially decent and likable schlubs.
Observe and Report is a departure from the Judd Apatow school of comedy, for Rogen and his audience. It's bolder, more anarchic, and Rogen ends up being an imperfect fit. The film would have been far better — but more difficult to market — if Hill's regular collaborator Danny McBride had taken the lead role. McBride shows up here in a hilarious cameo (billed as "Caucasian crackhead") and has created memorably funny but noticeably human cretins in Pineapple Express and Tropic Thunder. Rogen, by contrast, might have too much built-up audience affection and identification to take this character as far as he's supposed to.
The other problem with Observe and Report is that it looks terrible. It's so sloppily shot and constructed that it comes across more like a collection of YouTube skits than a feature film. Borat — a film Observe and Report probably aspires to — looks sketchy too, but there's a content-specific reason for that: It's a homemade road movie. Observe and Report was made with complete control of all the elements but looks like a weekend lark.
Observe and Report
Opening Friday, April 10th