Seth Rogen plays Ronnie Barnhardt, the head of security at a suburban shopping mall. Ronnie is no Paul Blart, though; he's not particularly likeable. The guy who works at the lotion kiosk has a restraining order against him - but Ronnie's harassment of the man is understandable because those people are annoying - and a perfume counter girl named Brandi (Anna Faris) feels like he's stalking her. (Maybe that's because he essentially is.) Ronnie also has mental health issues, lives with his mother (Celia Weston), and loves to shoot guns. His dream, of course, is to eventually attend the police academy and become a real cop.
Real trouble comes to the mall when a serial flasher begins running through the parking lot, exposing himself to women and girls, including a traumatized Brandi. Sensing the opportunity to finally bed her, Ronnie vows to apprehend the offender. Shortly thereafter, someone rips off a bunch of stores after hours. A local police detective named Harrison (Ray Liotta) is brought in to investigate the two crimes, but Ronnie deeply resents the intrusion on his territory. He's flat-out belligerent with Harrison, who retaliates by offering Ronnie a chance for a squad car "ride along" and then deserting him in the most dangerous part of town. This only fuels Ronnie's desire to upstage the detective.
That's kind of a plot, but it's also not really what Observe and Report is about. Writer/director Jody Hill doesn't care about the things we expect. He doesn't care if Ronnie redeems himself. In fact, he'd probably prefer that the character not redeem himself. Hill is more interested in studying aberrant human behavior. In his low-budget comedy The Foot Fist Way and his HBO series "Eastbound and Down" (both co-created with Danny McBride, who cameos here), the filmmaker specializes in telling stories about misfits and outcasts who are either 1.) delusional; 2.) hostile; or 3.) both. Hill's idea of comedy is to take someone unlikable and watch them fumble their way through the world, spreading their bile onto anyone who crosses their path.
Not many actors are up for playing somebody as repulsive as Ronnie Barnhardt, so you have to give Seth Rogen a lot of credit. He avoids inserting any of his charming mannerisms, like that infectious chuckle or his stoner amiability. Instead, Rogen plays Ronnie as a dark, disturbed guy who probably isn't kidding when he says he may have to shoot someone someday. And yet, because he is played by Seth Rogen, we are oddly drawn to the character, which is exactly what Hill wants. It's not that we care about Ronnie or empathize with him; it's about the fact that he's a train wreck and we cannot look away.
Observe and Report isn't exactly the kind of comedy that goes for the big punchline every few minutes. You might even be hard-pressed to find anything resembling a punchline here. In one sequence, Ronnie shoots an innocent man with a taser gun. In another, he beats up a bunch of kids who are illegally skateboarding on mall property. Not exactly what they like to call "comedy beats." If you laugh at all - which I admittedly did - it is sometimes laughing at the political/social incorrectness of Ronnie, and sometimes laughing at the sheer audacity of the film. Observe goes to such dark places that, at times, the only escape route is to laugh them off.
Why would anyone want to see a movie like this? Many people won't. I suspect that Rogen's name will draw a lot of fans to the theater expecting a Judd Apatow-style romp. Those folks are in for a big surprise. The dirty little secret we don't like to admit is that sometimes nasty stuff is funny. We chuckle when someone falls down, or gets tasered, or makes a complete ass of themselves in an inappropriate situation. Observe and Report virtually dares us to take amusement in Ronnie's rage against the world. If you're not afraid to tap into your own dark side, you probably will be amused. I hesitate to ascribe some deeper psychological motivation to the film. There is not necessarily any moral or insight to be gleaned here. Instead, I think the movie is, as the title suggests, an act of observation and reportage. Some people in the world, it says, are messed-up. Those people sometimes get ahead, sometimes fall behind, and sometimes just get stuck where they are. What happens to them - and why it happens - can be utterly fascinating.
Perhaps the most disturbing moment in the story comes at the end, when Ronnie faces down the flasher. I won't give away what happens, other than to say that the scene starts off as any grade-A raunchy comedy would, then makes a drastic left turn into more wicked territory. Has Ronnie Barnhart grown and improved over the course of his journey? Perhaps, although not in the way we expect. He's still as psychologically screwed-up as he ever was, but he's screwed-up in brand new ways. How funny, in a twisted sort of way.
( out of four)
Observe and Report releases on DVD and Blu-Ray September 22. The DVD offers you a choice of viewing the film in either widescreen or fullscreen modes. A digital copy comes on the disc. There are no bonus features whatsoever, although the Blu-Ray is slated to have a picture-in-picture commentary track with cast and crew, unscripted outtakes with Rogen and Faris, a faux security recruitment video, deleted scenes, and a gag reel.
Observe and Report is rated R for pervasive language, graphic nudity, drug use, sexual content and violence. The running time is 1 hour and 26 minutes.
Return to The Aisle Seat