There seems to be a trend in adult comedy these days to have male protagonists who are so pompous and misguided that the filmmakers are practically daring you to like them. Laugh at them? Sure. But like them? Go ahead and try. Will Ferrell is easily the king of this, though I'd say the trend started even before him, when other SNL alumni Chris Farley and Adam Sandler, and to a less successful degree Rob Schneider, started making movies about jerks that were loveable deep down. When at his best, Ferrell doesn't bother with the lovable, he leaves that style to Judd Apatow's crew. Or compare Borat to Bruno. It's also not a leap to follow these comedic heroes over to drama and suggest that Patton Oswalt's character in Big Fan is a distant cousin.
Perhaps no one gets this love-to-hate-'em, hate-to-love-'em, and hate-yourself-in-the-morning style than writer/director Jody Hill. Though I didn't much care for his debut with Danny McBride, the one-joke Foot Fist Way, the pair perfected the concept, as far as I'm concerned, in their HBO series Eastbound & Down. McBride's Kenny Powers is the right mix of arrogant and sad to make him both funny and oddly sympathetic, whereas his Foot Fist karate man was just an ass. Somewhere in between, then, is Seth Rogen's Ronnie Barnhardt, the unbalanced mall security guard in Hill's second feature-length picture, Observe and Report.
Ronnie Barnhardt is head of security at a rundown shopping mall. He supervises a socially maladjusted crew of three: the strangely effeminate Dennis (Michael Pena) and the creepy twins John and Matt Yuen (played by John and Matt Yuan). Most of the crimes he deals with are fairly minor until a flasher (Randy Gambill) starts displaying his wares in the parking lot. This sheds a spotlight on the mall and brings the police into Ronnie's territory. He doesn't like Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta) upstaging him, particularly when the latest victim is Brandi (Anna Faris), the girl from the make-up counter that Ronnie has a yen for. Ronnie would like nothing better than to foil Harrison's efforts, catch the flasher himself, and take Brandi as his.
Delusions of grandeur is the only real power Ronnie has in his little fiefdom. In reality, the mall is less of a safe place because of him and more of a safe place for him. With Detective Harrison's presence having broken down the wall between inside and outside, and having been encouraged by Nell, the one sweet soul in the entire place, the girl at the Toast A Bun who gives him free coffee (Collette Wolfe), Ronnie decides to stop being scared of his dream and try to become a police officer himself. This ends in humiliation, as his bipolar disorder and affection for violence mean he can't pass the psychological exam. In terms of the latter, Ronnie is actually surprisingly good when trouble goes down. Observe and Report takes several turns into violent territory and shows Ronnie giving beatdowns in graphic detail. It proves that Ronnie can be the force to be reckoned with that he believes himself to be, it's just that he's not smart enough to properly apply his talent. For everything that is messed up about him, he does have a clear sense of right and wrong. There are lines he won't cross, like committing the crimes he is charged with stopping, and he will stand up for the victimized, including delivering a hard-to-ignore warning to Nell's mean boss (Patton Oswalt) to stop picking on her.
On the other hand, there are plenty of lines Ronnie will cross, which made Observe and Report a hotly debated film when it came out earlier this year. Supposedly, the studio was so worried about it, they tried to make a much safer cut work. It didn't. Audiences already had enough of the saccharin shenanigans of Kevin James' Home Alone In the Mall mall cop movie, the dark undertones were required for Observe and Report to distinguish itself from that. Ronnie is not a swell guy. He is a racist and a bully. He is also so socially dysfunctional, he pressures Brandi to go out with him, and when she gets so wasted on their date that she can barely stay awake, he has sex with her anyway. (This is one of the more argued over sequences in the movie, with many critics arguing that Ronnie's actions were essentially date rape.) He's going to do a lot of stuff in this film you won't like.
At the same time, one could come to Ronnie's defense and say that he is the only consistent person in the movie. He is eternally true to himself and what he believes whether you find his way of thinking disgusting or not. He is more dedicated to his job than Detective Harrison, who couldn't care less if he ever catches the flasher. Brandi is selfish and judgmental, as well as a substance abuser. (Ronnie is drawn to a girl like mom, an alcoholic played with noble comic empathy by Celia Weston.) His best friend Dennis turns out not to be on the up-and-up. By comparison, Ronnie can seem like a shining star, because at least he's reliable and capable of moments of compassion. In the end, he takes care of his mall and the people in it, and most of all, he asserts himself.
Seth Rogen is about as unlikely a star as your going to find. His teddy bear physique, his lisp and nervously nerdish manner, these are things that could be a set-back for another performer. He often looks like he's not yet used to his own stature, that he has suffered a growth spurt he's never adjusted to, and so is clumsy in his own skin. This works incredibly well for a character like Ronnie, who is the kind of person for whom the phrase "a bull in a china shop" was invented. Rogen gets the imbalance, that at times he must take command of himself and be the kick-ass commando no one actually believes he can be. Also distinguishing themselves with impressive supporting turns are Faris and Pena, both of whom create complete characters full of quirks and yet who seem real in spite of them. Hill's partner in crime, Danny McBride, also shows up for a sinisterly funny cameo.
In a way, Jody Hill is his own version of Ronnie Barnhardt, a filmmaker sticking to his own twisted vision of what he should be. Observe and Report was a dangerous choice; it so goes against the grain, it could have been disastrous. As I said at the outset, it seems set-up as a challenge to make moviegoers like something they know they should not like. I can understand plenty of the complaints about Observe and Report, and even agree with some of them. At a scant 89 minutes, the movie can move too slow and has sequences where it drags. While Hill can be really good at capturing banter and conversation in ways that are both funny and real, he doesn't always rein in the chatter enough. That said, he knows how to put a scene together and how to move his camera around those conversations. He's also incredibly skilled at shifting gears and taking us into the bleak territory. I don't think I've seen an action movie this year with as much cringe-inducing violence as Observe and Report.
I'm also continually impressed by Jody Hill's use of music. With Quentin Tarantino having disappeared into the wormhole of his old movie soundtrack collection, Hill has quietly overtaken him as the master of the tough-guy/dirtbag music cue. From the opening of the movie, with Ronnie observing his kingdom to the sounds of the Band's "When I Paint My Masterpiece" through the multiple Queen songs that highlight Ronnie's calls to action or the Pixies cover that enhances the climax, Hill's choice of tunes always lifts the scenes to another place rather than just sounding like he's dropping in whatever cheap hit the studio can afford. His Yardbirds montage comes off like Wes Anderson's worst nightmare, when Max Fischer leaves behind childhood pranks for something harder. Though his tastes largely lean towards 1970s butt rock, he also has an ear for hip hop, and his placement of Amanda Blank, Nina Cream, and Aaron LaCrate's dirty "Super Freek (Remix)" is easily the best ironic use of hardcore rap since Office Space. How fitting that Ana Faris should be listening to a filthy song about the seductive powers of the vagina moments before being confronted with the flasher's penis.
Love it or hate it, and though it's a cliché, I find it hard to believe that this will be a movie that ever falls in between, Observe and Report is a movie that sticks to its guns. It's creepy, nasty, and misanthropic; it's also incredibly funny in crazy, disturbing ways. "Not for everyone" is another cliché, but it should be applied generously to any evaluation of this flick. Observe and Report never flinches, right up to the end it pushes the envelope for how far it can go, delivering a shock even in the last five minutes. It was enough to win me over, and enough for me to actually be glad that Ronnie Barnhardt could restore order to his domain. I wouldn't be all that happy if he were out there "protecting" me, mind you, but I'm more than happy to let him patrol a fictional world on my TV.
Warner Bros. has gone old school with Observe and Report and put two versions of the movie on one DVD. As the disc loads, viewers can choose between the widescreen theatrical version and the mangled full-screen version (which they try to convince us is the "standard version;" oh, semantics!). I'd love to know the market research that says this is a movie that a segment of the audience will want without those lines at the top and bottom of their screen and who those people are.
The image quality is excellent, regardless of the option. Good colors, crisp resolution, a solid effort.
The audio is mixed in 5.1 and has lots of atmosphere and multi-speaker interplay. Part of why I noticed Jody Hill's excellent use of music was how clear it sounded coming out of my system. There are also 5.1 mixes for Spanish and French dubs (the latter recorded in Canada), and subtitles in all languages, including English Closed Captioning.
It's been a while since I've seen a legitimate barebones disc, but this is as bare as it comes. Not even a trailer!
Recommended. Observe and Report is one of the blackest of black comedies to come out in recent memory, an unrelenting portrayal of violence and delusion that is both startling and hilarious. Seth Rogen is disturbingly good as a mall cop who rules his beat with an iron flashlight. Unlikable people doing unlikable things can make for some truly likable cinema, even if the pacing can sometimes make it slow going. Jody Hill's movie is the kind of film you watch while alternately covering your mouth because you can't believe you are laughing and your eyes because you can't believe what you are seeing. I found it hard to turn away, others will find it easy to press "stop." You'll only know which one you are by trying it out.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joëlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.