Observe and Report

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 04/17/09 03:38:41

"The dumbass gets badass."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

“Observe and Report” features many sad, stupid, horrible losers, dimwitted people who fantasize about violence and escape into drugs, dangerous people whose complete lack of skills and social awareness leave them with no future. Naturally, it is a comedy.

Writer/director Jody Hill, who previously made the indie comedy “The Foot Fist Way,” could have easily turned the story of the deranged and inept mall cop Ronnie Barnhardt into a pure horror story along the lines of “Taxi Driver.” Indeed, the stars of “Observe and Report” have openly compared its almost-hero to Travis Bickle, but here, Ronnie’s creepy fixations and social awkwardness are played for great big uncomfortable laughs.

That’s a dangerous road for a movie to take, but Hill pulls it off, pushing his characters right to the edge of horribleness while keeping them brutally funny. (How telling: even the laughs are course and violent.) We laugh because what we’re seeing is just so damn wrong - how did a mainstream studio release get away with this stuff? - and always so damn surprising. Hill takes us deeper and darker, again and again, until we catch ourselves: wait, are we laughing at Ronnie, or rooting for him?

It just might be the latter. Hill pumps action movie cliché into his film in a way that tickles us, and we forget for a moment just how much bad taste there is in, say, the scene where Ronnie and his pal, both coked out of their gourd, lay a beatdown on a group of skateboarding tweens. The moment isn’t playful, like Billy Madison pummeling kids with dodgeballs; it’s downright vicious, as is another scene where Ronnie takes on a group of thugs (going so far as to break bones through skin), or another still where he holds his own against an army of cops. That last one is set to Queen’s “Flash Gordon” soundtrack, as if we’re witnessing how Ronnie interprets the moment: his own private action movie, with himself, naturally, as the hero. Alfred Hitchcock, who gleefully tricked audiences into siding with the villain, may very well have been proud with what Hill accomplishes in these scenes.

Much of the film’s pitch-black comedy comes from just how far Hill takes his characters; our nervous but loud laughs are in the form of “are they really going to go there?” Oh, they are, and oh, they do.

Ronnie is played by Seth Rogen in a complete reversal of his lovable stoner/slacker persona. Rogen, bulked up and dumbed down, plays Ronnie as the grown-up version of that big, strong, stupid kid from school, the one that got straight Ds and plenty of detention, the one that prided himself on how much he could bench but few friends to hear him brag, the one that hasn’t figured out this thing called adulthood, and probably never will. (In a set design move both clever and creepy, his bedroom is made up like a ten-year-old’s.) He believes himself to be a true action hero (complete with his own enemies) and dreams of being a cop but can’t get past the psych evaluations, although he thinks that’s crap, because since he stopped taking his meds and feels great.

His good mood is chalked up to a single date with Brandi (Anna Faris), the girl from the makeup counter. She’s the type who probably took the job because of her own lack of skills and the thought they hey, maybe she’ll get free makeup or something. She can’t stand Ronnie but agrees to dinner just to get him off her back. He, meanwhile, sees himself as her valiant protector. When a flasher exposes himself to Brandi at the mall, Ronnie sees his chance to become a true hero.

That Ronnie can’t distinguish between flashers and robbers and skateboarding kids and drug dealing killers (he faces them all throughout the film) is another sign of his instability. To the tired detective (Ray Liotta) assigned to the case, the flasher’s just some punk who’ll never be caught; to Ronnie, the flasher is a wicked menace who must be hunted down and destroyed with a vengeful and righteous fury. His fellow mall cops (a lispy Michael Peña; doughy Asian twins John and Matt Yuan; and Jesse Plemons as the new kid) are easily talked into Ronnie’s crusade, because they, too, are stupid and clueless. They are also the sort of mall guards who dream wistfully on the day they can carry guns.

They’re all pawns in Hill’s evil little plan to see how far he can push everything - the characters, the plot, us - until something cracks. Nobody’s a good person here, not even the all-smiles sweet gal behind the cookie counter (Collette Wolfe) who’s friendly as can be but too dumb to realize just how horrible Ronnie can be. Perhaps her character is the sickest joke of them all: even after Ronnie’s brutality is made all too public, she’s still deluded enough to greet him with a smile - but not until the movie convinces us how much we should care for her.

That’s the trick of “Observe and Report.” For all the sleaziness and grossness it tosses at us in the name of dark comedy, and for all the laughing we do, we keep being horrified at the idea of actually caring for any of these idiots. God help us all, could this mean there’s a little of Ronnie Barnhardt in all of us?

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