The vaunted Judd Apatow creative juggernaut has raised the game for mainstream American comedies—let’s admit it. Can you really deny this stuff is an uptick from the likes of stale chickflick rom-coms and other yukfests the studios have been greenlighting lately? It’s also made at least temporary stars of some folk one couldn’t have imagined crawling out of the sidekick ghetto not long ago.
Exhibit A being Seth Rogen, who before Knocked Up two years ago was one of those vaguely familiar faces surfacing in one funny small part or another, his identity locked only in the minds of those fervent few mourning the two acclaimed but short-lived Apatow TV series (Freaks & Geeks, Undeclared) in which he was a regular cast member. But now he’s Seth Rogen—name above the title. Even so, Rogen has barely had a chance to show what he can do.
He gets the opportunity to stretch in the new Observe and Report, which premiered at South by Southwest Film Festival. Though not unlike a lot of recent comedies in general gist (and in specific concept a whole lot like Paul Blart, Mall Cop), both star and movie are just unpredictable, original and offbeat enough to keep you wondering what they’ll do next.
Pudgy pushing-30 Ronnie Barnhardt (Rogen) is chief of security at a mall outside Albuquerque. It’s a job he takes very, very seriously, and is unfortunate in having subordinates—softly lisping Latino Dennis (Michael Pena), the twins Yuan (John and Matt Yuen)—gullible enough to share his rather overinflated zeal. (They all incessantly mourn having mere batons and tasers to utilize on bad guys, though God help us if these clowns packed live ammo.) Ronnie roams these innocuous corridors of capitalism like a beer-bellied Rambo in misleading repose, watchful, cool, coiled for action. Including potential action of a different sort with the girl he likes, cosmetics counter salesperson (and heavy cosmetics user) Brandi (Anna Faris).
It is a good thing, on the self-empowerment plane, that Ronnie takes himself so seriously—because the world pretty much considers him a joke. He still lives at home with raging-alcoholic mom (Celia Weston). Brandi, not exactly the brightest light in the marquee herself, responds to his off-putting come-ons with a basic "Ew." The few other mall employees who’ve taken notice of Ronnie, notably Aziz Ansari as a pissed-off snack stand proprietor, tend to hate his ample guts.
Speaking of which, an opportunity for real guts’n‘glory—as opposed to just nabbing the odd teenage shoplifter—arrives when a flasher begins to expose his unlovely all to women in and around the mall. When Brandi is targeted, Ronnie rides to the rescue, only to discover that an actual police detective in the form of grizzled Harrison (Ray Liotta) is now on the case. He’s massively affronted at his "territory" being infringed upon, worse by a "real" cop who doesn’t hesitate in reminding Ronnie he’s just a "rent-a-cop." Being a bona fide man in blue—with a genuine gun!—is naturally our protagonist’s highest aspiration. Because, after all, "Right now the world needs a fucking hero," a role guess-who knows he’s the very man for. Never mind that his police academy psychological interviewer quickly assesses he’s "delusional" and "dangerous," with Ronnie himself helpfully pointing out he’s got "just a little bipolar condition, no big deal."
Written/directed by Jody Hill, who caught Hollywood’s attention with The Foot Fist Way (another comedy about a seriously deluded macho man), Observe and Report positions itself roughly between Hot Fuzz and Taxi Driver, in that its viewpoint is of a scarily self-righteous man with a mission whose inherent ridiculousness he is fully committed to ignoring. This eventually imperils others, and Observe’s last third pushes the comedic envelope a bit by letting Ronnie (and for a while Dennis) dole out some mayhem in the name of justice that’s rather shocking even by current R-rated, bad-taste comedy standards.
If it grows darker than one might expect, Observe still hesitates at becoming a true black comedy; it’s more medium-gray, earning stripes for breaking from current comedy norms on a moment-to-moment basis without quite arriving at an original, fully-developed whole. But Hill has a good eye, ear (the soundtrack choices are notably sharp), sense of off-kilter pacing, and, most importantly, a firm grasp on character. The mall is full of casually funny people who are extreme yet somehow uncaricatured. Pena makes a memorable impression; the wonderful Faris (House Bunny) pulls off yet another distinct variation on her bottomless wellspring of very dumb blondes. (Thanks to her, party animal Brandi’s reluctant date with Ronnie is the movie’s hands-down peak of hilarity, ending on one of the great rude punchlines in recent memory.)
As for Rogen, he’s pretty subtle playing a character who’s anything but. The actor gets deep enough into Ronnie’s pathology that he doesn’t have to act funny—his character possessing absolutely no sense of humor, particularly regarding himself—to be funny. It’s to Rogen’s credit that we can laugh at Ronnie Barnhardt, yet still find him alarming enough that we’d give that guy a very wide berth at any real-world mall. He may be a clown, but he’s a trigger-happy one you know sooner or later is going to get that gun he wants so badly. Then no one will be laughing.
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