Observe and Report
Observe and Report: that’s no way for a man to make a living. (Critic clears throat here.) Well, not if what you’re observing is shoppers, shopping. Consumers consuming. In a mall. What kind of hell is that?
Hell enough to send Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) over the edge.
Both movies are portraits of chubby guys who don’t fit the profile and can’t make the grade. Both men are socially inept, they live with their moms, and hold a crush on a sales assistant who should be out of their league (here, the fearlessly nasty Anna Faris).
They’re also delusional enough to equate a badge and a uniform with their own heroic self-image, though in their heart of hearts they know they won’t be real men until they’re packing a gun.
Paul stumbles on a career-changing case when thieves stage a Die Hard-like robbery in his mall. For Ronnie redemption comes in the form of a flasher who is terrorizing customers in the parking lot – including his beloved Brandi (Faris).
He figures if he can nail this guy before the cops – represented by Detective Harris (Ray Liotta) – then he’ll win Brandi’s gratitude. The prospect is so exciting to him he goes ahead and applies to join the force – a plan that hits a major snag when he takes the psychological fitness test.
With his hair cropped to a Marine buzz, and cutting out the winks and the wisecracks (Ronnie has no sense of humour), Rogen refuses to soften us up or apologize for the character’s single digit IQ. This may be the first time Rogen has stepped out of his comfort zone as an actor and the movie is funnier for his control, and also more disturbing. When Ray Liotta is used as a barometer of normal, that gives you an idea of how disturbed everyone else is.
More than once, writer-director Jody Hill teases out the slippy, messy area between a subversive gross out gag and something unsettlingly misogynist. He wants to push buttons, and he does.
A drunken sex scene between Brandi and Ronnie has kicked up quite a stink in the US, with feminist critics taking offence at what they see as a “date rape” gag. I won’t go into it in detail here, but it seems to me more complicated – and simpler – than the comedy police allow. It’s a joke not at the expense of rape victims, but at the expense of the whole sorry lot of us.
With our more entrenched taste for black comedy and near-the-knuckle humour, I would be surprised if British audiences took exception to this scene. It’s a sour, tasteless movie about people on the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder. Maybe we know those people better than some American commentators, not just from our own town centres, but from our films, soaps and sit-coms. Machismo is about the only source of pride Hill’s anti-heroes can afford. They’re useless at everything else. We get that.
Hill is obviously influence by The Office and that school of embarrassment humour (his low budget debut, The Foot Fist Way, starred Danny McBride as a gung-ho martial arts instructor with a black belt in egomania).
The flasher’s eventual full-frontal appearance supplies the movie with a suitably in-your-face climax, as well as extending contemporary film comedy’s undeclared mission to domesticate the male member. Ever since Borat – in Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Superbad – it seems like there’s nothing funnier than a penis on the loose.
But it’s the naked anger Rogen and Hill reveal that makes Observe and Report a sticky proposition. It’s consistently sharper and wittier than Mall Cop, but Hill’s disconcerting habit of making his biggest laughs stick in your throat is mirrored by his readiness to do just the opposite: to take a disturbing scene and undercut it with a cheap gag.
This is an edgy movie by mainstream standards, and a good deal sharper and funnier than Paul Blart. But Hill isn’t quite in full command of his material yet. Does he like Ronnie? I don’t think so, but he indulges him more than he should. And us too.
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