Observe and Report, which opens today, concerns bipolar mall security guard Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen), a self-important loser who has a crush on Brandi (Anna Faris), the ditzy makeup counter girl who has no interest in him. When a flasher exposes himself to Brandi in the mall parking lot, Ronnie notices that she is taken with Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta) who shows up to investigate. Ronnie hopes that by solving the case before the real cops do he can land his dream girl and his dream job, a spot at the police academy (despite his inability to pass the psychological test).
Critics weren't sure what to make of the film. Director Jody Hill said the film was inspired by Taxi Driver, and some reviewers tried to rationalize that the film is unapologetically crass and offensive because Hill was making a statement about the dark side of suburban mall culture. Others said the film wasn't funny enough to pull off the satire, so it just comes off as bizarre and tasteless. Below, we take a look at some of the major reviews.
To [Jody Hill's] credit, he leads Observe and Report down every alley a mainstream comedy is supposed to avoid. The violence is bone-crunching. ... Women are depicted as skanks and slatterns. Ethnicity and sexual orientation are freely mocked. Unrepentant drinking and drugging go unchastised. The flasher flaps vigorously and often - yes, that's a penis I see before me - leading to a chase scene through the mall that makes the naked wrestling set piece in Borat look coy. The result is a crazy mosaic of Americana with tiles scattered and missing. Need I observe and report that the view isn't for every taste? It sure is for mine.
Observe and Report's Ronnie is a casualty, too-of a broken family (his father is long gone, his mother a prodigiously sloppy drunk), some bad genes (he's on strong psychoactive meds), a gun culture, sexual frustration exacerbated by stacked blondes in short dresses, and the accumulating spiritual effects of working in a mall and eating fast food. As Travis Bickle was a sponge for urban bad vibes, Ronnie is modern suburban mall culture gone freakazoid. Hill hits what seems like a bad-taste peak early on (Ronnie grinding away on top of an ostensibly unconscious alcohol-and-drug-addled, vomit-flecked Brandi) and just keeps climbing. When Ronnie and his second-in-command, Dennis (Michael Peña), embark on an orgy of drug-taking and authoritarian violence against unarmed civilians, the air in the theater feels dangerously thin. Is this a comedy again?
Director Jody Hill, who also wrote the screenplay, maintains a very precise tone by making sure the actors never once behave as though they know they're funny. That Rogen was willing to embrace this approach shows unusual maturity and confidence ... Rogen isn't alone out there. Anna Faris delivers a tour de force as Brandi, the trashy cosmetics counter girl who becomes the object of Ronnie's fascination. They have a date scene in which she progressively becomes more wasted, and it's flat-out hysterical, one of the funniest scenes in months, because it's clear that Faris is grounding this drug-abusing, amoral slut on very slick, detailed comic observation.
Beyond the weirdness [of the date rape scene], if you can get there, is a quick portrait of trailer-park America pursuing its urges by any means necessary. It's clear that Ronnie, no babe magnet, will take what he can get on this night of nights, even if it's not quite the exalted ecstasy he had hoped for; and that Brandi, who's been in this position once or twice before, wants the sexual exercise, even if she's not awake to take an active role in it - somewhere in her stupor, she's feeling a rote rumble of pleasure. The scene achieves what few American movies even attempt: to pinpoint the grim compromise, the desperation, that can attend the sex act. Don't call it love; don't call it grand; but whatever it is, don't stop.
Say this for Jody Hill's disturbing black comedy Observe And Report: When it's over, you know you've seen something. Something of a cross between the formalist whimsy of Wes Anderson and the God's-lonely-man psychosis of Taxi Driver, the film breaks all the rules, but the tonal schizophrenia that results isn't an accident. Hill means to unsettle viewers by confusing the fantasies of an overzealous mall security guard with the bitter, down-to-earth reality of his pathetic, unhinged desperation. The trouble with Observe And Report is that Hill tries to have it both ways: He presents a hero who's hopelessly deluded and dangerous, yet he indulges those delusions, too, and turns them into a bizarre sort of wish-fulfillment. In the end, it's hard to know how he feels about the man.
Observe and Report conveys an essential truth about Rogen: Like every other actor on the planet, he needs good material to do good work. To be fair, Rogen is sporadically amusing in Jody Hill's remarkably tasteless film as Ronnie Barnhardt, a bipolar mall security guard with delusions of grandeur, especially after he hands over his meds in a misguided attempt to charm a bimbo (Anna Faris). Hill (The Foot Fist Way, HBO's Eastbound & Down) deserves some credit for going so far over the top; you have to admire a guy subversive enough to mock a subject as untouchable as mental illness. Unfortunately the film's humor is a lot like Ronnie's sanity: It comes and goes and isn't there when you most need it.
The intended point of hilarity here must be that what Ronnie is doing is almost date rape, but phew! not quite. Brandi knows what he's doing, and she's OK with it — because she's really just sort of a sleazy girl to begin with, right? Even if you just write the gag off as a sick joke, it's no fun to see Anna Faris used this way. Dressed in tiny, tight dresses and cheap high heels, Faris' character toddles through the movie with a sour, self-satisfied scowl. The idea may be that Brandi's no nicer — or no better — than Ronnie is, so why not score jokes off her? But anyone who's seen Faris work her bubbleheaded genius in The House Bunny — which really is a subversive comedy — and believes this is a good use of her talents shouldn't be going to the movies, let alone making them. Maybe Hill really is as dim, and as boorish, as his lead character is.
My hunch is that the people who respond to Observe and Report will use words like "risky" and "dark" to describe it. Hill is no dummy: He's playing straight into the audience's desire to be seen as cool and sophisticated. But he's really just pandering to that audience — he's not asking anything more of them than to bow down before his bleak, twisted vision.
Mr. Hill says his movie was inspired by Taxi Driver a self-flattering comparison. Like those of Travis Bickle, Ronnie's delusions of grandeur do end in a paroxysm of blood. Yet while Martin Scorsese might be overly fond of screen violence, part of what makes that film profound and memorable is how the thrill of violence, its seduction, is always in play with a palpable moral revulsion. No such dialectic informs Observe and Report, which exploits Ronnie and his brutality for laughs. This lack of critique might make the movie seem daring. But it's hard to see what is so bold about a film that, much like the world outside the theater, turns the pain and humiliation of other people into a consumable spectacle.
It turns out that the film's title, Observe and Report, is the credo of mall cops everywhere — they can look and take notes but they can't actually do anything. Put another way, they are ultimately impotent and expendable. Which is not a bad way to think of this movie. It heaps piles of bad, crazy stuff at our feet then walks away. There is no moral to this story, and there's not much comedy either.