A film review by Craig J. Koban


2009, R, 85 mins.

Seth Rogen: Ronnie Barnhardt / Anna Faris: Brandi / Michael Pena: Dennis / Celia Weston: Robbie's Mom / Ray Liotta: Det. Harrison

Written and directed by Jody Hill

OBSERVE AND REPORT is one of those comedies that certainly thinks that it’s a whole lot funnier than it actually is.  If anything, this film is more drearily weird and darkly offbeat than it is rousingly hysterical.  

What’s perhaps most surprising – and frequently shocking – about his whole enterprise is just how twisted, morose and demented the film becomes as its story progresses.  The advertising for it on TV is largely fraudulent, much akin to the shamelessly false advertising for last week’s diamond in the rough dramedy, ADVENTURELAND.  Whereas I applauded what a refreshing change of pace that latter mentioned film was apart my preconceived expectations of it, I did not have the same euphoric reaction to OBSERVE AND REPORT; instead of being a laugh-out-loud comedy, it emerges as something kind of off-putting, sinister, violent, and…well…utterly creepy. 

Parallels between this film and another surprise hit comedy from earlier this year, PAUL BLART: MALL COP, seem inevitable:  Both films are about…mall cops; both take place ostensibly in a large urban shopping plaza; both involve a pudgy and overachieving misfit character that aspires to a higher authority than that of being a lowly and ill-respected security officer; and both involve their beleaguered main characters pining for the attraction of a gorgeous female co-worker that seems beyond their grasp and hopelessly out of their league.  However, all of these mentioned similarities are superficial at best, because most of the family friendly slapstick antics and warm-heartedness of PAUL BLART is all but pissed on in OBSERVE AND REPORT.  The characters here are crude, vulgar, racist, bipolar, slutty, and pathetically sadistic at times.  

A much more fitting title for the film could have been TRAVIS BICKLE: SOCIOPATHIC MALL COP. 

That proposed title is not nearly as inappropriate as it reads.   The more OBSERVE AND REPORT descended into sickening depravity, the more it became apparent that TAXI DRIVER seemed more like a distant influence on this film.  Funny, but I never once found the Travis Bickle character that punctuated every unnerving minute of Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film to be even remotely amusing or agreeable.  I think that is part of OBSERVE AND REPORT’s problem:  its main mall cop character, played by Seth Rogen, never comes across as an affable misfit/loser for audiences to root for and invest in.  On the contrary, Rogen’s character is an unremittingly vile, repugnant, and mean-spirited persona.  Instead of playing a lovable loser (as the actor has made a very successful career at in films as far ranging as THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN, KNOCKED UP, SUPERBAD, and THE PINEAPPLE EXPRESS), Rogen inhabits an appallingly disturbed and psychotic loser.  

See the difference? 

Now, sometimes there is nothing more rousing and rewarding than to see a performer go completely against the grain and invest in a character that is wholeheartedly different than they are accustomed to (for example, I have always maintained that Robin Williams has always been more effective in low key and quietly modulated dramatic performances).  The same principle cannot be held in regards to Rogen here:  I think comic actors that don’t necessarily have a considerable amount of range are always better suited to playing up their inherent strengths.  With Rogen, his strengths lie predominately with playing potty-mouthed, dazed and confused slackers, but at least there has always been something indescribably likeable about all of his oddball characters, despite their social indiscretions.  The problem with OBSERVE AND REPORT is that Rogen’s role never once garners any iota of audience sympathy or understanding.  More often than not, the character inspires shameful pity.  He’s just a perverse and emotionally unpleasant creation. 

Not only that…but he is a borderline schizophrenic sociopath with delusions of grandeur.  Ronnie Barnhardt (Rogen) is seemingly one step away from a mental institution: he lives in his trailer park trashy home with his mother (Celia Weston, giving this film some much needed light-heartedness) who spends her days secretly putting rum into her Coke bottles.  His mom is so methodically sloshed everyday that she sometimes passes out in the middle of a conversation with her son and sometimes her penchant for the bottle increases her hurtful level of honesty with him (in one side-splitting moment when Ronnie asks her if his father left them both because of him, she hilariously deadpans back “Definitely”).   

Ronnie’s relationship with his own mother is strange beyond belief, but his social skills beyond the home are hopelessly inept.  He is the head of mall security at a local shopping center and has four underlings: second in command Dennis (Michel Pena, never once funny while sporting greasy curly hair and an annoyingly wispy slur to his speech), the Yeun Twins (the very timid, but oddly crazy looking, John and Matt Yuan) and Charles (Jesse Plemons).  Ronnie’s chronically obsessive attitude takes form in his unadulterated lust for his job as well as in the form of being infatuated with a very busty and very trashy cosmetics girl named Brandi (played in a go-for-broke slutty performance by Anna Faris, showing what a real trooper she is for going to any length to show off her character’s bitchy and skanky façade).  His attempts at striking up even the simplest of conversations with her carry the same eerie and cringe-worthy vibe that scenes involving Bickle with women had in TAXI DRIVER.  

One crime in particular angers Ronnie to the max: a streaker has managed to approach many mall patrons both inside and outside its doors, and Ronnie makes it is soul mission to find this creep in order to protect Brandi (again, this echoes Bickle's morose and fanatically minded focus to protect a prostitute In TAXI DRIVER).  He does not take kindly to the arrival of a local police detective, Harrison (Ray Liotta, having more fun with his part than just about anyone in the film), who comes in and rightfully tries to take charge of the investigation.   Ronnie, seeing Harrison as an unnecessary roadblock that impedes his own detective skills, takes a highly disagreeable hatred of the man…even though he deeply respects his status in the police department and wants to become one of his “kind”.   

There is moment in TAXI DRIVER where Bickle – right before he attempts to assassinate a presidential candidate – has an unnerving and disturbing conversation with a Secret Service man, asking if they are recruiting.  Just look at the sequence where Ronnie goes in for a psychological exam as part of his police recruitment training in the film: he maintains the same level of cruel emotional dislocation from any normal plane of reality.  Even when he goes on a ride-along with Harrison at one point in order to understand what his job entails – and is later stranded by Harrison in the worst hood in town – Ronnie still manages to thank the incredulous detective for giving him the hands-on resolve to get through his hellish ordeal.   Ronnie’s full transformation into an offensively brutal and deeply insane creature hits full stride during a very unsettling date with Brandi, during which she show her willingness to through just about any drug and/or drink into her small frame.  The scene with Faris throwing caution to the wind, downing meds and shots like they're going out of style, is very funny, but the culmination of their night is not at all (Question: Is date rape remotely amusing?  Answer: no).  The film then spirals completely out of control in its wild, raucous, and totally unhinged final 30 minutes, where Rogen takes his character to sadistic depths that a likeable actor like him is incapable of overcoming in the end.   

Here’s what I don’t understand:  Is writer/director Jody Hill (THE FIST FOOT WAY) mocking and condescending this unscrupulous and insane cretin or is he celebrating his miserable senselessness and shocking level of crazy tunnel vision?  OBSERVE AND REPORT never once feels like it has a clue in the world.  Some will, no doubt, find the film’s unrelenting bleakness and its willingness to push the envelope to be oddly inspiring.  On a positive, I will commend Hill for never once copping out, nor does he go for easiest route with this type of material: OBSERVE AND REPORT has oodles of tenacity and nerve and takes legitimate chances, not to mention that Hill has a real knack for stylish flourishes and kinetic flair (his use of editing and well-timed music cues has a real refinement and consummate polish: this is a good looking and well made film through and through).    

Yet, the real problem with the film is that – despite all of its overtones with being a nasty, incisive black comedy with a gnarly attitude and ravenous, sometimes stomach churning bite – it woefully substitutes lowbrow jokes, freakishly hideous characters, and deplorable shock and awe gags in place of genuine laughs.  Even the film’s climatic scene involving copious amounts of full frontal male nudity – shown in slow-mo, no less – is certainly shocking, but never once feels cutting edge or really altogether funny.  For defying conventions, OBSERVE AND REPORT deserves some accolades (Hill certainly has skill and a persistently crazed and steadfast vision for his film...and he never apologizes for its excesses), but there is a difference between punishing viewers into a sense of unease and submission as opposed to stomping on cinematic taboos in order to make us laugh.   

OBSERVE AND REPORT is not a complete comedic dead zone.  Anna Faris has small moments of vulgar charm as her perpetually inebriated floozy, not to mention that Ray Liotta (who so often plays cops in dramas and action films), creates an animalistic intensity here that works almost better in comedies than in other serious fare.  Celia Weston, as stated, nearly steals the film with her portrayal of Rogen’s Jack Daniels loving mom (a little bit of her goes a long way here to rise the film above its depressing undertones).  Unfortunately, the film is rarely sidesplitting with its main protagonist.  I have taken much heat regarding my positive review of PAUL BLART, but I think that making a family friendly film that is naturally funny is harder to pull off than a hyper-stylized, raunchy, and ill-mannered comedy that tries too hard to shock and distress audience members.  Ultimately, Rogen’s mall cop is a categorically dark-hearted, monstrously demented and ill-mannered monster that sinks deeper and deeper into emotional chasms where his lust for bloodshed becomes a sick security blanket.  He's about as funny as Travis Bickle was in TAXI DRIVER.

In Short: not very funny at all, which essentially sums up my overall feelings about OBSERVE AND REPORT. 

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