Observe and Report

Apr 15, 2009 at 12:00 am

"I thought this was going to be funny, but it's really just kinda sad." —Ben Best

Let's put it right up front: There'll be people who hate this movie. There'll be people who'll decry this as insensitive and wrong, insulting to those suffering from mental illness. And there'll be those who laugh for all the wrong reasons. Still, this unfiltered blacker-than-black comedy from writer-director Jody Hill (Foot Fist Way, East Bound and Down) is a hilariously subversive assault on our post-9/11 pathologies (particularly those of the angry white male) and society's knee-jerk abuse of authority.

For one, it's not often that a film invites you to cheer on the delusional fantasies of a bipolar, self-important, Travis Bickle-inspired mall security guard. But that's just the tip of the sociopathic iceberg. There are also jokes about date rape, drunken incontinence, heroin abuse, yucko male nudity and racism. Hill claims to have been inspired by Scorsese's Taxi Driver, but it's the auteur's disturbingly brilliant King of Comedy that he's emulating, pushing the envelope of comedic satire and ruthlessly bulldozing the Buddha-bellied slacker persona Seth Rogan's been cultivating for years. Will audiences embrace it the same way they embraced the execrably roly-poly Paul Blart? Doubtful.

Ronnie Barnhardt (Rogen) heads security at a suburban mall, where a flasher has started terrorizing shoppers in the parking lot. The delusional and likably creepy mama's boy sees it as an opportunity to show his law-enforcement skills and land the job of his dreams as a police officer. Even better, Brandi, a vapid makeup counter girl (Anna Faris) is accosted, giving him access to the object of his desire. Unfortunately, the arrival of an arrogant investigating detective (Ray Liotta) spins Ronnie between psychotic competitiveness and sycophantic posturing.

Unlike most Hollywood fare, this isn't Ronnie's personal redemption story despite his psychological shortcomings. Instead, it's a gradual descent into psychopathology, as the movie rides Ronnie's manic-depressive cycle. With the sudden presence of cops and busty, boozy Brandi in his life, Ronnie sees his ambitions coming to fruition and abandons his medication. Never mind that no one else sees the world the way he does, Ronnie's righteous in his mission and the lengths to which he'll go to validate his illusions are simultaneously hilarious and pitiful.

So, what happens when reality refuses to bend to delusion? Pretty much what you'd expect: disturbing violence and unrepentantly inappropriate humor — such as Ronnie's job interview with a matronly police psychologist, which ends with him gleefully declaring "At this point in my life, I feel like I could really destroy some motherfuckers!"

Hill's dry and nihilistic film takes the comedy of awkwardness to painfully uncomfortable levels, daring us to flinch at his rogue's gallery of unlikable characters and their unsavory deeds. Whether it's Ronnie's barely functioning alcoholic mother (the great Celia Weston), an evil Cinnabon manager (Patton Oswalt) or Dennis (an unrecognizable Michael Anthony Pena), Ronnie's lisping, sociopathic right-hand man, Observe is populated with the banal worst mankind has to offer. Only a meek, born-again virgin cashier (Colette Wolfe) offers us a glimmer of humanity. Not surprisingly, Ronnie's scenes with her are the least compelling moments in the film.

Hill's movie keeps its audience off balance in the same way Bad Santa defied comic expectations, smartly using slapstick humor to undercut raw and unnerving conceits. But unlike that poison pill of a comedy, Observe and Report shows empathy for its characters' deep insecurities, rooting its humor in anger and longing. And Hill keeps his eye on the satiric ball, indicting a society where the Ronnies of the world, like Joe the Plumber and other psychotically macho knuckleheads, are validated for all the wrong reasons.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].