Observe and Report (2009): Comedy Starring Seth Rogen

Like its protagonist guard, well played by Seth Rogen, who perceives himself as the thin blue line between order and anarchy, “Observe and Report,” the darkly humorous comedy in which his character is contained, is positioned between order and anarchy.

The movie is edgy and audacious to please indie viewers, but may not satisfy expectations of the more mainstream viewers who have admired Rogen in his Judd Apatow’s comedies (“40 Year Old Vitgin,” Knocked Up”) on the other.

Rogen plays Ronnie Bernhardt, an overzealous, self-aggrandizing, self-proclaimed cop, at once blessed and cursed with a warped sense of reality. Early on, we get the impression that he is a man who not only carries a gun but would also like to use it, for various reasons, both legit and illegit.


The movie premiered at SXSW Film Fest to mixed critical response and will be released by Warner on April 10.  Defying genres, “Observe and Report” tries to be offbeat indie and also meet the demands of a more accessible comedy, resulting in a peculiar hybrid of movie that’s likely to sharply divide critics and audiences.


The fact that two mall cop movies are released in the same season—the other being Sony’s “Paul Blart: Mall Cop”–is probably a coincidence, though I doubt that “Observe and Report” would be as commercially successful as the sleeper hit “Paul Blart,” which has grossed over $120 million domestically.  The two comedies could not have been more different: If “Paul Blart” is fluffy and generic, a typical studio product, “Observe and Report” is original and edgy, if also inconsistent in characterization and incongruous in tone.

Jody Hill’s dark comedy tries to stretch the limits of what we consider to be humorous and dunnt, taking a similar approach to Terry Zwigoff’s in “Bad Santa,” starring Billy Bob Thornton, which was a better movie.  Thus, it’s legitimate to ask whether it was necessary for the movie to be so dark, violent, and disturbing?  Was the goal to prove that American comedy as a genre can tolerate any theme and approach in the wake of Judd Apatow’s new- style comedy?  Like Apatow and Greg Mottola, writer-director Jody Hill shows a sharp eye for locating humor in the most bizarre yet ordinary situations, reflecting an offbeat sense of reality and the world we live in.


Ronnie is a cop who takes his job and himself seriously, and the milieu in which he operates, a shopping mall called
Forest Ridge, while particular, is also meant to serve as a microcosm of American society at large.  At the mall, as security chief, Ronnie patrols his turf with iron fist, fighting skateboarders, shoplifters and other deviants, while dreaming of better, more glorious days, when he can swap his flashlight for a gun. A truly bizarre fellow, Ronnie is tough-talking but like Robert De Niro in “King of Comedy,” which alongside “Taxi Driver” has inspired Hill the writer (see below), he lives at home with his domineering, boozy mother (a good Celia Weston).

Is Ronnie just a self-delusional guard or a perverse version of an avenging angel and dangerous guardian of law and order?  Almost every provocation functions as a threat or opportunity to make his mark, that is, to unleash his subconscious, his inner demons, anxieties, and fantasies.


Ronnie’s persona is put to the test when the mall is struck by a flasher. Driven by personal sense of duty to protect the mall and its patrons, he gets an opportunity to display his law enforcement skills.  He hopes that his action would finally conquer the love of his fantasy blonde woman, Brandi (Anna Faris), the bossomy makeup clerk who ignores him.

An aggressive guy with rage issues, Ronnie doesn’t know how to deal with his position of power. The test comes when Ronnie tries to stop a pervert before the local police can solve the crime. In his view, the police are his nemesis, and the ensuing narrative builds upon this premise of a standoff between Ronnie and the authorities.  His single-minded pursuit of fame causes a conflict with Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta) of the Conway Police, who’s as cocky, aggressive, and unsympathetic as he is.  Ronnie’s challenge is not only to capture the flasher but also to do so before the real cops.

Clearly, Hill was not interested in making a straight, lighthearted comedy, but a more dangerous and controversial film that would provoke, irritate and offend some segment of the audience, and he deserves credit for sheer chutzpa, if not achievement.  As writer and director, he brings a more dramatic tradition to  comedy, refusing to let his characters be cute or “wink” at the audience, the way they do in most studio’s teen comedies.  It’s the film’s extreme, outrageous situations, the intense fight scenes, male nudity, drugs and violence, which push the boundaries of what a “Hollywood comedy” is, should, and could be.  The big question is, to what extent viewers would be willing to take such a wild ride. 


Hill acknowledges that he was inspired by Scorsese’s 1976 classic “Taxi Driver,'” one of his favorite films, and you can add to his list Scorsese’s “King of Comedy,” too, by trying to create a parallel character, albeit in a comedy. Like Travis Bickle, Ronnie, which Hill wrote with Rogen in mind, is God’s lonel
y man who feels isolated and wants to make a difference in this world, but doesn’t really know how.
Though an underdog, he doesn’t perceive himself as such and is not looking for sympathy. A sheriff in a little universe, he takes a great deal of pride in who he is.  Also like Travis, Ronnie loses it, then becomes a vigilante, an instrument to clean up the world.  The finale actually borrows more from Scorsese’s “King of Comedy” than “Taxi Driver,” but I don’t want to spoil the fun.


Hill’s feature debut, the modest “The Foot Fist Way,” exhibited a fresh voice, but “Observe and Report” goes well beyond that, pushing the envelope with a film that doesn’t easily fit into any established category or label. Warner’s backing (which is commendable), allocating a decent budget for the movie has allowed Hill to make a more accomplished picture and perhaps even develop as a helmer.

“Observe and Report” is very much Seth Rogen’s show, and rising to the occasion, while sporting a totally different physical look, the actor proves that his range is wider than seen in the Judd Apatow’s offbeat comedies.

Though cast with gifted actors, with the exception of Ray Liotta, the secondary parts are underdeveloped, including Celia Weston’s alcoholic mom, Anna Faris’ sexy clerk, and Michael Pena’s devoted assistant.

Director of photography Tim Orr, production designer Chris Spellman, and editor Zene Baker supplement the sensibility of Hill, thus creating a more or less unified look for what’s ultimately an incongruous and not entirely satisfying comedy.

Cast

 

Ronnie Barnhardt – Seth Rogen
Det. Harrison – Ray Liotta

Dennis – Michael Pena

Brandi – Anna Faris
Mark – Dan Bakkedahl
Charles – Jesse Plemons
John Yuen – John Yuan

Matt Yuen – Matthew Yuan

Mom – Celia Weston

Nell – Collette Wolfe

Saddamn –Aziz Ansari

 

Credits

 

A Warner Bros. release, presented in association with Legendary Pictures, of a De Line Pictures production.

Produced by Donald De Line.

Executive producers, Andrew Haas, Marty Ewing, Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni, William Fay.
Directed, written by Jody Hill.
Camera, Tim Orr.

Editor, Zene Baker.
Music, Joseph Stephens.

Production designer, Chris Spellman.
Art director, Masako Masuda; set designer, Robert Fetchman; set decorator, Helen Britten.

Costume designer, Gary Jones.

Sound: Christopher Gebert.
Supervising sound editor: Terry Rodman.

Visual effects, Pacific Vision Prods.  


MPAA Rating: R.

Running time: 85 Minutes.