Movie Review: Observe and Report (2009)

Unfortunately, while deadlines sometimes reign supreme-- Observe and Report is the best recent example of why I make a concerted effort not to review a film for at least 24 hours after I see it. And precisely, it's because-- well, to put it bluntly-- sometimes you need that amount of time to figure out exactly what the hell you've just seen.

Obviously, yes I grant that most of the time it’s fairly easy to exit the theater and make a snap thumbs up or thumbs down judgment but surprisingly despite the advertising strategy that this is an interchangeable, quintessential Seth Rogen comedy-- this is not exactly the type of film of which it’s possible to quickly observe and report, much to the shock of basically everyone exiting the theatre at our recent press screening.

While of course it’s great to be challenged and you have to admire writer/director Jody Hill’s courage to go to the extreme right from its start—I must say that my puzzled reaction hasn’t gone away as only a few days later, I’m still stunned.

For, who would have thought that—similar to some of the more arty fare I’ve taken in this past week at our local Phoenix Film Festival—Seth Rogen’s newest comedy would be this hard to pinpoint? Definitely not this reviewer, that’s for sure.

Yet it was as wildly unpredictable and filled with mood swings as its bipolar disorder afflicted main character as for nearly the first hour, Observe and Report is essentially fall-out-of-your-seat-funny (despite a few rough jolts from left field). However, during its overly long and unspeakably grim finale, it loses the funny in favor of Kubrickian madness as it turns wickedly dark, mean-spirited, overly violent, and bizarrely twisted in its tone to match our lead character’s pursuits following a major disappointment and decision to pull himself off of his required medication.

For, although it's the second film this year to take a look at mall security guards following actor Kevin James’ family-friendly surprise early ’09 hit Paul Blart: Mall Cop-- there is no mistaking Observe and Report for Blart no matter how similar they may appear on the surface.

Additionally, nor is it easy to lump it together with Seth Rogen’s most recent Apatow and post-Apatow box office fare that’s found the extremely busy, incredibly gifted young comical star lending his voice to animated works including Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who, Kung Fu Panda, and Monsters vs. Aliens as well as keeping up appearances as our favorite post-Jim Carrey and Will Ferrell slacker in Pineapple Express, Zack and Miri, and others.

And the reason for this can be summed up in two words or one name-- Jody Hill. Having garnered a cult following and fans in Will Ferrell and Adam McKay who helped bring his debut film The Foot Fist Way into the mainstream, Hill decided that for his follow-up effort which found him backed by Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures (the same duo that brought us The Dark Knight and Watchmen), he would avoid as the press release notes “’winking’ at the audience.”

As producer Donald De Line shares in recollection of his earliest meeting with Hill at Sundance which screened The Foot Fist Way, Jody Hill “really wanted to push the envelope... [and] to do something that didn't fit into any one box,” with a film that “pushes the boundaries of what a ‘Hollywood comedy’ is supposed to be. There’s no self-consciousness, no sense of parody about [Observe and Report].”

To achieve what Jody Hill called his goal, “to make films that are dangerous and controversial, even if they offend some people,” he sought inspiration for this work which he wrote with Rogen in mind from one of his favorite films-- Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver.

Wholeheartedly confessing that Observe and Report may in fact “be the only comedy ever made that was inspired by” the film that screenwriter Paul Schrader discussed on its Special Edition DVD as being about “a certain breed of white boy,” who isolates himself-- Jody Hill took the idea of a peculiar lead character who is “in a position of power but... [doesn’t] know how to deal with" it to form the basis of the plot.

Similar to Robert De Niro's character Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Seth Rogen’s character Ronnie Barnhardt is cut off from reality and filled with dangerous delusions of grandeur coupled with a hero complex (or more precisely, an antihero one).

After a flasher starts terrorizing women in the parking lot of his domain—Forest Ridge Mall—the self-important head of the mall security department decides to treat bringing down the exhibitionist “as his call to arms, to greatness.”

Taking it upon himself to throw together a special elite task force that consists of his sycophantic right hand man Dennis (Michael Pena), two gun-obsessed Asian twins (John and Matt Yuan) in addition to a youthful mall security wannabe employed at a mall restaurant—the stakes for Ronnie’s “case” which he likens to something out of King Arthur are raised when the flasher targets his cosmetic counter dream girl, Brandi (Anna Faris).

Having tried to avoid the admittedly creepy and obsessive Ronnie at all costs, the bimbo party girl Brandi becomes yet one other obstacle for Ronnie as he tries to compete against the real police, headed up by hard-nosed Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta) when Harrison flirts with and stares a tad too long at Ronnie’s crush.

Instead of working with the police, Ronnie irrationally sees them as his enemy in a strange figurative pissing contest as he tries his hardest to nail not only the perverted perpetrator but a mall robber after the shoe store gets raided during the night. Wasting Harrison’s time by endlessly pointing his racist finger at anyone and everyone including a Middle Eastern employee and a Spanish speaking janitor—when Harrison finally snaps and tells Ronnie that he’d never be able to be an actual cop and should stick to his job assignment to observe and report, Ronnie decides to try and join the local police force.

While it doesn’t take a genius to predict how well that’s going to work as the aggressive and hostile Ronnie engages in one of the most terrifying psychological screenings ever, it’s about this time that Hill drops an endless amount of razorblades into the film that you can only liken to Halloween candy as it deceptively starts like a run-of-the-mill Rogen comedy until the blood begins to let and gush like a horror movie.

While Hill tries to include some brighter spots including a likable but awkward possible flirtation between Ronnie and the sweet born-again-virgin Christian Nell (Collette Wolfe) who always gives him free coffee despite his unwillingness to realize her interest and the film’s greatest scene-stealer in his perpetually drunk, promiscuous, and blunt mother (Celia Weston), much like the funny but ultimately cringe-inducing Foot Fist Way, soon the far-darker yet still cinematically superior Observe and Report takes you into some very uncomfortable places.

These include some ridiculous hard drug use that makes absolutely no sense for the characters, senseless beating of children in the head with skateboards, and a scene that initially looks like a date-rape although the female character who has partied herself into a near coma is given one gross out moment and a line added to prevent us from walking out in the hopes we’ll assume it’s a lucid and consentual encounter (for the record, women still see right through it).

Decidedly, Hill adheres to his own vision for the work 100%-- critics, audience members, and everyone involved be damned-- in a way that definitely takes guts to use your first shot at a big studio film and not play it safe but instead to go all out in a movie that even Rogen admits contains “some shocking stuff” (this from a guy who starred in Zack and Miri and Knocked Up). Despite this, Rogen continues to share his admiration for Hill’s emphasis on “character study.”

While more often than not, I found myself laughing—especially in every scene involving Weston who proves she has the surprise comedic chops that Mary Steenburgen had in Step Brothers—and I enjoyed the concept of irresponsible characters who take their small amount of authority and go wild with it similar to David Brent or Michael Scott in both the BBC and NBC versions of The Office. However, it’s one that I still have a hard time recommending wholeheartedly since there’s just so much about the film that pushes you away to the point that you realize there’s very little about Ronnie's Observe and Report universe to like.

Still, worth it in the end for Rogen fans as he proves his deftness this time as an actor and—coming off the heels of Crossing Over—it’s great to see Ray Liotta return to the comedic territory he aced in Heartbreakers since as producer De Line correctly reveals, “just saying Ray Liotta versus Seth Rogen made everybody laugh.”

Unfortunately, I wish I could say that the film did a better job of consistently doing just that instead of going out of its way to shock and repulse by having had Hill go back and watch his favorite director Scorsese’s ability to move in and out of peril and hysteria sometimes in the same scene (i.e. Liotta’s work in GoodFellas).

Since—much to Hill’s credit—he really had us involved from the get-go in the film’s successful beginning until he began to shove. The pushes were made gently at first more in the realm of the dark humor of the Coen Brothers until we were soon overwhelmingly black and blue, making one realize that Hill’s script could’ve benefited from the way Scorsese has always managed to make us empathize with people whom we probably would avoid in real life in lieu of the rogue gallery of walking restraining order like kooks served up in Observe and Report.

Or, to go a much more lowbrow route, by taking another look at some of the films made with Seth Rogen and realizing that the strength of all of them—even when we’re sickened by some of the visuals is that deep down, there’s a heart buried beneath all of the f-bombs with which we’re far more willing to observe and report with pleasure.