In “Observe and Report”, Seth Rogen (“Zack and Miri Make a Porno”, “Pineapple Express”)plays Ronnie Barnhardt, a security guard with delusions of grandeur. In Ronnie’s mind, he is the law, and the only thing standing between order and chaos at the local mall. Thing is, Ronnie’s not playing with a full deck; he takes anti-psychotic meds and still lives at home with his alcoholic mom. He also has a racist streak and is quick to whip out his tazer on unsuspecting shopkeepers. Ronnie and his mall cop deputies fantasize about the day when they’ll be allowed to carry guns, but it’s clear that these are about the last people who should be trusted with firearms.
Ronnie is obsessed with a cosmetics clerk named Brandi, played by Anna Faris, who is basically every character ever played by Anna Faris (though, I sincerely hope Anna’s bloated collagen lips are just for this part, and not her usual look these days). When Brandi is assaulted by an overcoat-wearing flasher, Ronnie takes the matter deadly serious. Despite clearly being incapable of solving any sort of crime, he becomes consumed with catching the flasher. In the process, he makes himself a major nuisance to the real cop investigating the case, Det. Henderson (Ray Liotta).
When Henderson loudly berates Ronnie as nothing but a pathetic rent-a-cop, Ronnie decides he’s going to show the world he has what it takes to become a real police officer. Unfortunately, he gets rejected from the police academy for soundly flunking the psychological exam, setting Ronnie down a disturbing path.
But, you know, not too disturbing. There seems to have been a conspicuous effort on the part of the filmmakers to keep things light and jokey, when perhaps the material demanded a darker and deeper look into Ronnie’s twisted psyche. Some, including the film’s star and the film’s director, have likened this to a comedic version of “Taxi Driver”, but it’s nowhere near as dark, nor is it terribly funny.
“Observe and Report” is the second feature from writer-director Jody Hill, who also gave us the cult comedy “The Foot Fist Way”. The two films have a lot in common; “Observe” is very nearly the same movie, just with taekwondo replaced by mall security.
But where the two movies differ is in the amount of laughs they deliver. Danny McBride, the lead in “Foot Fist Way” (seen here in a small cameo as a crack dealer), had the sort of natural, easy charm that can only come from a non-Hollywood, unpolished leading man. Seth Rogen, on the other hand, tries hard to transform himself into this deluded, mentally challenged loser, but Rogen is obviously a bright guy in real life and just can’t pull it off.
There’s been a lot of talk about the similarities between this film and the other rent-a-cop comedy released this year, “Paul Blart, Mall Cop”. Where “Blart” went for easy laughs, “Observe” is often a difficult sit. The trailers and TV ads sell this movie as a dumb gross-out comedy in the vein of everything else Seth Rogen and Anna Faris have ever appeared in, but it actually has more in common with indie, arthouse fare.
That’s not the problem here. The problem is that the movie can’t commit to being the sort of black comedy it really should be. Every now and then, it ventures into dark territory, but quickly scurries back into the light. At the outset, I expected to see one man’s slow descent into madness, but instead it turned out to be more of a “one man’s occasional forays into creepiness” type of story.
Ultimately, the film is just too laidback and low-key to provide many laughs. “Foot Fist Way” was also extremely low key, but it became a cult hit due to its high quotability factor. “Observe and Report” may yet attain that cult status when it hits DVD and people can watch it over and over. But those watching it for the first time in a theater will probably find it to be a dud.
At one point in the film, a character declares, “I thought this would be funny, but it’s actually kind of sad, so I’m leaving.” I imagine a lot of people in the audience will sympathize.
Jody Hill (director) / Jody Hill (screenplay)
CAST: Seth Rogen … Ronnie Barnhardt
Ray Liotta … Detective Harrison
Michael Peña … Dennis
Anna Faris … Brandi
Dan Bakkedahl … Mark
Jesse Plemons … Charles