by Mel Valentin
Writer-actor Seth Rogen seems to be everywhere these days. Just two weeks ago, Rogen provided the voice for one of the characters in DreamWorks Animation’s latest film, "Monsters vs. Aliens in 3-D." Last year, Rogen starred in two films, "Pineapple Express," which he also wrote, and "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" for writer-director Kevin Smith ("Clerks I and II," "Dogma," "Chasing Amy"). Two years ago, Rogen broke through as a writer and actor in "Knocked Up" and "Superbad." This week, he’s back in Jody Hill’s ("The Foot Fist Way") second film, "Observe an Report," a comedy-drama that, at least superficially, resembles "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," a surprise hit released three months ago. "Observe and Report" will surprise moviegoers with its dark (as in “black hole dark”) humor and unflinching, caustic satire of the American male psyche and our preoccupation with violence.Observe and Report centers on Ronnie Barnhardt (Rogen), the head of mall security at the Forest Ridge Mall (presumably in New Mexico, where Observe and Report was shot). Barnhardt, an action hero in his own mind and bi-polar in everyone else’s, runs mall security with the help of his best friend and second-in-command, Dennis (Michael Peña), the sycophantic Yuen brothers, John (John Yuan) and Matt (Matt Yuan), who Barnhardt refers to as in “infantry” (as in lose one and the spare will take his place), and a mall security guard wannabe, Charles (Jesse Plemons). When they’re not patrolling the mall, Barnhardt and the Yuen brothers take out their real and imagined frustrations at a firing range. In a typically self-delusionary excuse, Barnhardt expects to receive permission to carry firearms at work (he won’t, of course). Until then, Barnhardt and his security staff make due with batons and tasers.
"A (legendary) hero in his own mind."
At the mall, Barnhardt openly lusts for Brandi (Anna Faris), a slutty, bottle-blonde, cosmetics salesperson. Brandi won’t give him the time of day (or night, for that matter). When Barnhardt’s not working at the mall or hanging out with the Yuen brothers at the firing range, he’s spending quality time with his alcoholic mother (Celia Weston). When, however, a serial flasher brandishes his flaccid penis in front of Brandi, Barnhardt sees the opportunity of a lifetime: catch the flasher and win Brandi’s affection. Mall management, however, calls in the police who, in turn, send Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta) to investigate the case. While the self-deluded Barnhardt tries to wrest control of the case from Harrison, seemingly unrelated burglaries hit the mall. As with the flasher, Barnhardt sees the burglaries as a chance to make a name for himself and impress the impressionable Brandi.
As both Hill and Rogen have mentioned in interviews, Hill relied on Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s Taxi Driver as the template for Observe and Report, from to the self-deluded, self-aggrandizing, mentally ill anti-hero’s attitude toward real and imagined corruption, to his bumbling, awkward pursuit of an idealized woman out of his league, to the voiceover narration that prepares Barnhardt (and the audience) for the seemingly final confrontation against the (imaginary) forces of evil, and the violent, occasionally nauseating, one-step-short-of-a-bloodbath beatdowns that Rogen’s Barnhardt gives and receives throughout Observe and Report. He thinks he’s already an action hero in an action film. He’s just waiting for the right moment to express his inner action hero. No amount of public humiliation can derail Barnhardt.
Observe and Report unsurprisingly deserves its “R” rating, and not just for the typical profanity, vulgarity, and gross-out gags we’ve come to expect from Rogen’s films (which appear here in their usual abundance), but from the depictions of violence. The beatdowns in Observe and Report are brutal, disquieting, repulsive, and excessive, so excessive in fact that you can’t help but respond with nervous, uncomfortable laughter, but the beatdowns also reflect Hill’s critique of our morbid fascination with violence. If, after all, we identify with a self-deluded, if sympathetic (and pathetic) character, as some audience members did more than 30 years ago with Taxi Driver, then we’re also, at least to some extent, identifying with his desires to unleash violence on his (imagined) oppressors.That critical attitude runs all the way through "Observe and Report." With the exception of a mall worker, Nell (Collette Wolfe), with a not-so-secret crush on Barnhardt (even that makes her, at best self-deluded about his finer qualities), the characters in "Observe and Report" are depicted as self-serving, self-interested, small-minded, and incapable of meaningful personal change. At best, they’re capable of minimal, superficial change, like Barnhardt’s acid-tongued, alcoholic mother or, of course, Barnhardt. In that, Hill again follows "Taxi Driver," leaving his protagonist with his delusions of grandeur intact, ready to over-react to the next seemingly innocuous incident that calls his image of himself into doubt.
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originally posted: 04/10/09 01:49:45