If the early 1990s Quentin Tarantino had been handed the script for "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" and told to make it his own, the end result might have been something like "Observe and Report."
This is one dark-hearted, strange, violent piece of work—and though I can’t recommend it, I can voice a certain appreciation for this warped and gutsy effort by writer/director Jody Hill ("The Foot Fist Way.") Either he’s got a genius comedy lurking within, or he’s going to keep making provocative near-disasters like this movie. Either way, I’ll at least sign up to see what he’s going to do next.
Apparently there’s a new Movie Law that says Seth Rogen must appear in one in every seven American movies, and that’s been mostly a good thing so far. The beefy Rogen looks and sounds like a small college linebacker who might be on steroids, but even when he’s playing far-from-cuddly stoners and lumbering horndogs, there’s something likable and inherently funny about him.
Here, Rogen is undeniably funny at times. Likable? Just when you think that might be so, "Observe and Report" slaps you hard in the face, twice, and reminds you Rogen is playing one of the most detestable and disturbed leads in modern comedy history. (He’d kick the crap out of Billy Bob’s "Bad Santa" before he had his free coffee of the day.) His Ronnie Barnhardt is the chief of security at Forest Ridge Mall, a generic indoor collection of mid-level clothing stores, kiosks and food choices guaranteed to cement your arteries. Ronnie is a tightly wound, borderline sociopath who lives with his alcoholic mother (a very funny Celia Weston) and seems to have no clue as to how to interact with other members of his species. He’s obsessed with a collagen-lipped, cleavage-baring party girl (Anna Faris) who works the counter at a cosmetics store---but even though she’s a dimwit, she knows a nutcase when she sees one, and she doesn’t even try to hide her disdain for the pathetic, hyper-aggressive Ronnie. Only after she’s had about 17 drinks and several pills does she allow Ronnie to have a go, resulting in a disgustingly hilarious hookup. (Ms. Faris is nothing if not brave.)
When a flasher makes multiple appearances at the mall, Ronnie makes it his mission to apprehend the perv, much to the amusement of an oily police detective played by Ray Liotta, who must have his own supply of prop guns and badges at home in case there’s another call to play an oily police detective.
The dynamic between Liotta’s Detective Harrison and Ronnie is something. In one rant, Liotta calls Ronnie "a faggot" AND "a retard," and yeah it’s offensive, but it’s also exactly how the crude and blunt Harrison would talk.
When Harrison plays a prank on Ronnie designed to show the schlub he’ll never be a real cop, "Observe and Report" undergoes a transformation that’ll give viewers whiplash. The payoff is wildly unexpected, pretty damn funny, and so violent you’ll cringe. All of sudden, we’re not sure if this is a politically incorrect, hard-R comedy in the vein of a Judd Apatow or Farrelly Brothers creation---or something Scorsese would do if he wanted to revisit the territory of "Taxi Driver" as well as "The King of Comedy."
"Observe and Report" has at least two similarly jarring sequences—one involving a revelation about Ronnie’s right-hand man, and another that is so bizarre and over-the-top that even though we have come to realize this is a seriously crazy-ass film, we’re still not sure if it we’re watching a fantasy sequence. But it’s "real," within the context of the film—and it’s the moment when I gave up trying to find reasons to argue on behalf of "Observe and Report." Yes, it takes huge chances. Yes, it made me laugh hard more than once. But as Ronnie sinks deeper into his delusions and the violence goes beyond even the "Pineapple Express" threshold, as male nudity is once again played for shock-‘em laughs (too late after "Borat" and "Forgetting Sarah Marshall"), I eventually surrendered and admitted this is an ambitious but insanely uneven hit-and-miss comedy with far too many misses. I’d much rather see freaky but original stuff like this than another bland romantic comedy with McConaughey or Dempsey or Dancy wooing some gal, but at some juncture you have to stop giving points for effort.