In Theaters: Observe and Report
If you've seen its red-band trailer, then you've seen the best of Observe and Report, the nasty little comedy that, with any luck, signals the end of the mall-cop micro-genre. You've seen Seth Rogen's anti-Blart, leading his rogue security detail in a quest to nab the flasher threatening his retail idyll. You've seen him defending the honor of his cosmetics-counter dream girl, the flasher's most distressed victim. You've seen his fraught relationships with his boozy mother and the local detective investigating the case. You've likely chuckled at all of it, spiked with vulgarity and quirk and thinly veiled sociopathy. You've also been radically misled.
It turns out that Observe and Report isn't really a comedy at all. Nor is it a drama, nor is it some savvy realignment of those boundaries. It's just a generally bad film lacking energy, imagination and even the most basic respect for its audience, who will visit the theater anticipating entertainment and receive instead a lecture on What's Funny Now. It's not as though writer-director Jody Hill has it in mind strictly to subvert expectations, much like he did with similar, self-delusional themes in his 2006 breakthrough The Foot Fist Way. With Observe, Hill and Co. have conceived more of a stunt: To update Taxi Driver with all the irony that Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader simply didn't have access to in 1976.
As it happens, they were lucky. So was Don Siegel, whose Dirty Harry also sanctioned many of the neo-fascist impulses fueling Rogen's own Ronnie Barnhardt. Nursing a dream to someday join the police force in his North Carolina hometown, Ronnie broods in uniform at Forest Ridge Mall, overseeing his squad of three with corporal precision. When not investigating shoplifting complaints and other cursory criminal hiccups, he flirts grotesquely with Brandi (Anna Faris), the beautiful makeup saleswoman who would sooner issue Ronnie a restraining order than her phone number.
His opportunity arrives with a flashing epidemic in the mall parking lot. Brandi's confrontation with the raincoated pervert spurs Ronnie to convene his Special Elite Task Force. By now Hill has hedged his tonal bets, and it shows: While Ronnie's lisping, sycophantic second-in-command Dennis (Michael Pena) abets his boss's sense of authority, the arrival of Det. Harrison (Ray Liotta) draws that authority's illusion into stark relief. Their power struggles also emphasize Ronnie's mental illness, a dark hybrid of delusions of grandeur and hyper-aggression that Rogen plays for saucy, scowling laughs.
Except he's neither scary nor funny, and for all his insistence that "This world needs a fucking hero," Ronnie's run-ins with those who'd threaten his domain are, at best, sketches of profane, directionless indulgence. Tangles between Rogen and Liotta, Danny McBride, Aziz Anzari or Patton Oswalt unfold like so much dank postmodern kitsch. Ronnie and Dennis's bloody skateboarder crackdown merely kills time en route to Hill's third act, during which his protagonist's downward spiral -- like Travis Bickle's 33 years ago -- yields the unusually sweet fruits of self-destruction.
But what's in it for the viewer? Hill in particular has expressed some pride in upturning convention, and at least in the scenes of pairing Rogen and a brilliant Celia Weston (as his alcoholic, oversexed mother), glints of genuine transgression sparkle in their dingy double-wide. Yet the filmmaker gives it all back in the subplot involving Ronnie and Brandi, essentially wasting Faris in her latest instance of punchline-typecasting. Her fate is perhaps the most violent of any in Observe's semi-shocking final reel, which, considering the carnage around her, ironically lingers as Ronnie's signature act of vengeance.
You have to feel for Warner Bros., arguably the last studio around chancing material like this. But whereas previous gambles good (The Dark Knight, Gran Torino), bad (The Fountain, Watchmen) and ugly (Speed Racer) each bought Warner's varying measures of aesthetic integrity, such redemption eludes Observe and Report. Not even gifted cinematographer Tim Orr or his trademark slow-motion can supply Hill's folly with texture or dimension.
Unless you count the trailer, of course. For two minutes, anyway, everyone involved has a hit on their hands. For the remaining 84, the only reason to see this failure is to believe it. RATING (out of 10): 3.5