As dark comedies go, Observe and Report is dark in the way the fiery pits of hell are dark. It's dark the way the charred remnants of a torched orphanage are dark. We're talking dark. Its hero is a delusional, dangerous psychopath. Its satirical targets include alcoholism, drug abuse, senseless violence, sexual predators and date rape. Such fodder can be a dicey proposition for humor, to put it mildly; and, sure enough, most of the uneasy laughs elicited by Observe and Report tend to be of the "I can't believe they're making fun of this" variety.
But writer-director Jody Hill, whose HBO series Eastbound & Down ventures into similar terrain, deserves props for sticking to his unequivocally twisted vision. It also happens to be wickedly fun, provided you don't begrudge yourself the sort of misanthropic humor that likes turning lemonade into bile.
Equally up to the task is Seth Rogen, who certainly does not play it safe as Ronnie Barnhardt, a belligerent, Clozapine-popping shopping-mall security guard who sees himself locked in a life-and-death struggle with the forces of crime. "I'm up all night fighting demons," he tells a mall employee with obvious false modesty, "just screaming bloody murder, waking up with nosebleeds, night terrors, finding myself a mile from home with bloody feet, a gun in my hand ... I have no idea how I got there..."
But Ronnie also chafes at a society that seemingly straitjackets him from doing his job. The indignity of it all: The mall manager (Dan Bakkendahl) won't even let Ronnie or his subordinates (played by Michael Peña, John Yuen, Matt Yuen and Jesse Plemons) carry guns, a restriction that irritates Ronnie all the more when the place starts getting terrorized by a flasher (Randy Gambill).
For Ronnie, the flasher means an opportunity to finally prove his mettle. The guard's determination intensifies after the pervert wiggles his junk at cosmetics-counter saleswoman Brandi (Anna Faris). She happens to be Ronnie's dream girl, despite her being a hard-partying ditz with nothing but disdain for him. Ronnie's crime-fighting efforts are hampered when a no-nonsense police detective, Harrison (Ray Liotta), turns up at the mall to conduct a more conventional investigation.
Observe and Report is often uproarious, albeit not for all tastes. Its peculiar aesthetic is summed up in a scene in which a cop hides in a closet so he can hear Detective Harrison dash Ronnie's dream of becoming a police officer. Ronnie is crushed, as expected. But then Harrison's colleague emerges from the cramped space, disappointed. "I thought this was gonna be funny, but it's actually kind of sad," he says, summing up the warped comedic sensibility that is Observe and Report.
Moviegoers who like their comedy edgy enough to draw blood, however, will find it fascinating. The cast is certainly committed. Rogen is not an especially versatile actor, but he gives it his all here -- and actually imbues Ronnie with a degree of likability.
Rogen is bolstered by some terrifically over-the-top performances. Faris is hilarious as the dimwitted party girl, while Weston dials up the white-trash quotient as Ronnie's alcoholic mother, who waxes nostalgic about how she used to have sex with Ronnie's high school friends. Peña is wonderfully off-the-rails weird as Ronnie's friend, Dennis, who sports an oily perm and a Mike Tyson lisp.
Special mention must be made of Gambill's brief bit as the pervert. Not every thespian would be so game to let his modest member flap around, and in slow-motion, no less (it's an outrageously funny scene, incidentally, and less graphic than it might sound).
Jody Hill has said he was inspired by Taxi Driver, and the similarities are apparent. Ronnie's isolation, delusions, fixation on a woman who doesn't want him and spiral into vigilantism all make for a more comic, caricaturish rendering of Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle. Even a voiceover monologue that launches Observe and Report's third act takes its cue from the Martin Scorsese film.
While no one will confuse Observe and Report with Taxi Driver, both pictures do share another odd strength. Rogen and Hill manage to wring some sympathy, however qualitative, for their challenging protagonist. They don't make it easy for audiences. In its most notorious scene, Observe and Report even has the cojones -- or tastelessness, depending on your viewpoint -- to elicit a shocked laugh from what appears to be a case of date rape. Still, through it all, Ronnie does mean well. And occasionally his outbursts of violence, such as when he comes to the aid of a harassed donut shop worker (Collette Wolfe), appear justified.
In the end, Ronnie Barnhardt is committed, as he puts it, to being the hammer of all that is good. It's just that, through no fault of his own, Ronnie is more screw than hammer.
Viewers can choose between anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1 or (for whatever reason) full-frame. Details are sharp and crisp; colors are vibrant and strong. There are no issues with problems such as edge enhancement.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 is clear and strong, with no discernible failings such as distortion or dropout. Rear speakers get only modest action. Audio tracks are also available in Spanish and French. Optional subtitles are in Spanish, French and English for the hearing-impaired.
Unbelievably, and unforgivably, the disc does not have a stitch of bonus material.
Observe and Report is not for every taste - some wags might suggest it's not for moviegoers who have taste -- and it's certainly not something I'd ever recommend to my parents. But writer-director Jody Hill is audacious enough to stay true to a defiantly twisted, non-politically correct comic vision. The absence of extras is a serious disappointment, but purveyors of dark comedy won't be sorry.