Film Review: Observe and Report

Warner Bros. takes a gamble on writer-director Jody Hill's sophomore effort, a pitch-black comedy that's sure to inspire rants and raves in equal measure.

Ever since Knocked Up transformed him into a movie star, Seth Rogen has become Hollywood's go-to guy for schlubby but lovable losers. Those of us who saw his debut in the gone-but-not-forgotten TV series "Freaks and Geeks," though, remember a different Rogen, one who was just as amusing, but far more caustic and mean than the sarcastic teddy bear seen in Pineapple Express and Zack and Miri Make a Porno. That Rogen is back in full force in Observe and Report, writer-director Jody Hill's latest exercise in extreme misanthropic comedy. Playing a role that often feels like it was written for Hill's frequent collaborator Danny McBride (co-writer and star of Hill's previous efforts, the low-budget comedy The Foot Fist Way and the recent HBO series "Eastbound & Down"), the actor is clearly eager—perhaps too eager—to torpedo his current screen image. Here's a list of just some of the bad behavior Rogen indulges in while wearing the powder-blue uniform of emotionally stunted, mentally unstable mall cop Ronnie Barnhardt:

-Verbally and physically assaulting mall patrons
-Rudely impugning the investigative abilities of a veteran detective (played by Ray Liotta)
-Harassing a Middle Eastern salesman named Saddam (Indian-American comic Aziz Ansari)
-Shooting heroin in the mall bathroom with his right-hand man Dennis (Michael Peña)
-Forcing a hot-to-trot makeup clerk named Brandi (Anna Faris) to go on a date with him, then bedding her while she's half-conscious after binging on pills and alcohol

The latter scene is perhaps the best litmus test for deciding whether Observe and Report is darkly funny or deeply irresponsible. Moviegoers will have to make up their own minds, but for this critic at least the film is more often the former than the latter. The key to its success is that it neither excuses nor celebrates the behavior of its "hero"; both Rogen and Hill are well aware that Ronnie is an awful human being, as are, it must be said, all of the other employees who toil at this mall from hell. Ronnie's fellow retail law enforcers are either sycophants or criminals, his boss (Dan Bakkedahl) is an ineffectual dope, while Brandi is, in the immortal words of Dan Aykroyd, an ignorant slut. (That Faris manages to make this misogynistic nightmare a genuinely funny character is just another example of her considerable comic chops.) Naturally, not everyone finds the sight of nasty people doing nasty things to each other inherently hilarious—that's why shows like "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and movies like The Ref are cult hits at best. On the other hand, if both of those comedies hold prize places on your DVD shelf, it's hard to imagine that Observe and Report won't join them. This is one of those films where you're never sure what the characters are going to do or say next, but chances are good that it'll be hysterical.

All that said, it's my duty to report that Hill loses his nerve as the film enters the home stretch. Instead of carrying Ronnie through to his natural end—i.e., either dead or left alone and unloved—the final act offers a kind of redemption by allowing him to be an actual hero (albeit a questionable one) and winning the heart of a girl. Not that unfaithful harridan Brandi, of course, but Nell (Collette Wolfe), the sweet, gentle food-court employee who serves him his free coffee everyday and inexplicably cares about his well-being. Hill and Rogen have both repeatedly stated in interviews that Taxi Driver was a major influence on Observe and Report, and this upbeat finale seems designed to mirror the superficially happy ending of Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese's seminal study of urban alienation. But the dark joke in Taxi Driver is that while the newly famous Travis Bickle appears to have rid himself of his demons, that final, furtive glance in his rearview mirror suggests otherwise. In contrast, Ronnie Barnhardt appears to emerge from his various trials a better human being. And nothing hurts a dark comedy more than a sunny ending.