A couple of weeks ago, my good buddy Hans reviewed Observe and Report, the new Seth Rogen vehicle, and his reaction was…displeased, to say the least. I had been very interested in seeing this movie, based on what I thought was a very interesting trailer. Then when reviews came out for the movie and they were widely all over the board, ranging from my colleague’s scathing diatribe to the rare 10 out of 10 review over at CHUD, I found myself in one position only: I had to see this damn movie.
Some accounts sounded like something I would hate: 90 minutes of time spent with an obnoxious loud-mouthed sociopath served up with care-free goofball comic glee. Some sounded like something I would love: a wildly transgressive dark comedy with direct influences from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Also of note was that I had seen director Jody Hill’s previous film The Foot Fist Way and really didn’t like it. And even having seen multiple trailers, TV spots, and promo clips, I was overcome with the feeling that I had no idea what to expect and that something somewhere in this film would really surprise me.
And now I’ve finally seen it and I can throw in my two cents, a full two weeks late when no one really cares anymore. Between illness and multiple excursions around the country, it took me awhile to see it and for that I apologize to the one or maybe even two people out there clamoring to know what ShepRamsey thought of Observe and Report. And it’s the damnedest thing because I’m just not sure yet.
Here’s the premise in a nutshell: Ronnie Barnhardt is the head of mall security at a mall that is being plagued by a flasher and by a robber. He takes his job very seriously and aspires to be a tough-as-nails cop one day–to “serve and protect” rather than merely “observe and report”– and he brings that (entirely ill-conceived) attitude to his job at the mall. When Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta) gets called in to investigate the crimes at the mall, Ronnie does nothing but give him shit in the most spectacularly cliché “this is my case” way that he can think of. Meanwhile, he attempts to woo the interests of Brandi (Anna Faris), the token girl-at-the-cosmetics-counter who is perhaps even more obnoxious than Ronnie and clearly not interested in him.
Ronnie is a hell of an intriguing character and director Jody Hill knows him to a tee (which really makes me worry about Hill). Ronnie is a dangerous and extremely unstable man and all of his behavior is motivated by today’s classic image of what a cop is and should be. But what’s truly funny and original about the way that Hill characterizes him is that he incorporates every negative cop stereotype into his daily habits as well as the glorifying ones. He racially profiles, he uses excessive violent force, and he has a smug air of self-importance that we can see right through. But in Ronnie’s head, all that is just what a real hero ought to be and it’s that same idea that leads him to pursue the girl at the cosmetics counter rather than the sweet and far more responsive girl who works at the pastry shop. The one just seems so much more glamorous than the other.
Spending time with Ronnie can certainly be taxing, but Rogen is a nice choice for the part. He has that natural teddy bear vibe that makes Ronnie a little bit tough to hate and sometimes even a little sympathetic. As such, it makes for a very strong and intriguing characterization, but the drawback is that much of the time it’s not particularly funny. We end up just feeling kinda bad for him and his rash instability. There’s a line in the movie (mild spoiler ahead) when Detective Harrison tells Ronnie that his police application was turned down because of his delusional mental evaluation and a fellow cop who had been hiding in the closet to eavesdrop and giggle exits into the room and says “So, uh…I thought this was gonna be kinda funny, but it’s actually kinda sad.” That’s exactly how much of this movie is because, in its quest to find the right tone, you’re never sure what’s supposed to be funny and what isn’t—if anything.
It can be funny at times, sure. I mentioned before that, conceptually, Ronnie is a very original and funny character. But Hill just isn’t a very gifted comedic director. He has good ideas, but he doesn’t know how to make them work. The Foot Fist Way wasn’t funny and this one has a pretty rocky time with it, as well. Things bounce back and forth between startling dark subject matter and big broad jokes. The idea of a flasher stalking the mall just seems like a lame attempt to put a lot of penis jokes in the movie and there are several more scenes that are just plain bad.
I couldn’t stand Celia Weston as Ronnie’s mother, who’s basically just a big drunken cliché (granted, it’s one of very few clichés in the movie that isn’t intentional). I also didn’t care for Danny McBride’s (who starred in Foot Fist) cameo in the picture as a crack dealer. And the extended exchange of “fuck you’s” between Ronnie and a fellow mall employee goes on way too long and was never funny to begin with. All of it is just really broad and dumb and made me roll my eyes. It serves no purpose, except to undercut its darker subjects. Had Hill not assumed that broad humor juxtaposed with dark subject matter made a dark comedy, then he could have mined the humor out of more interesting places and had a more successful movie.
Sometimes the movie is on the right track and I have to say that I really liked the ending (where the Taxi Driver influences come out in full force), but the movie just doesn’t totally work for me. It feels like a script that could have used a different director. I don’t want to say that Hill is a bad director, but I feel like if he directed something to be sold as a drama, it would give his darker sensibilities more room to run free and he’d find himself making a really great black comedy. Maybe sometime on down the road I’ll revisit Observe and Report and warm up to it a little. It’s already as plain as day that I liked it way more than Hans did. It’s not a disposable movie and in a day and age where that can seem like all we get, I really appreciate that. If nothing else, it’s an ambitious film that’s got way more rolling around in its head than Paul Blart: Mall Cop.