April 16, 2009

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Observe and Report (R)
Seth Rogen ain’t all Judd Apatow cuddle-bear and proves it with the unsettling but interesting Observe and Report, a, I guess, comedy from Jody Hill of The Foot Fist Way.

That movie, which starred Danny McBride, got a certain amount of fanatical praise last summer. I thought it was funny in chunks but together it felt like a repeat of the same sketch comedy scene about an earnest Tae Kwon Do instructor who didn’t know what a buffoon he was. Observe and Report could also be funny in little chunks, but when you put those chunks back in context, you might be more horrified (or at least creeped out) by the big picture.

Ronnie Barnhardt (Rogen) patrols the mall like it’s his mean streets and he’s a real, gun-carrying cop. It’s telling that before his character thinks to make an actual stab at becoming a real police officer, he spends lots of time firing very big weapons with a zeal that should make even the most “from my cold, dead hands” member of the N.R.A. a squeak nervous. His The Shield-like approach to mall security is backed up by his strange crew (including Michael Pena and John and Matt Yuan) but is put to the test when a trench-coat-wearing flasher shows up in the parking lot. The man shows his junk with abandon, including to Brandi (Anna Faris), the shallow make-up girl with whom Ronnie is in love. This actual crime brings in an actual cop, Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta), whom Ronnie sees as a threat. He believes Harrison will steal “his” case. Harrison, naturally, believes Ronnie is a nut and humiliates him a bit in retribution.

Observe and Report was not as good as I’d hoped for and not as bad as I’ve subsequently heard some people say it is. It suffers, I think, from expectations. Seth Rogen, mall security guard, trailers that highlighted the most guffaw-causing scenes — you’d think going in that it was the cruder, more profanely funny version of Paul Blart: Mall Cop. But it is in reality something much darker, weirder and more risky, storytelling-wise.

Ronnie Barnhardt isn’t just some dopey man boy. He’s seriously screwed up. He’s, in many ways, awful (for example, the “date” with Brandi from its awkward beginning to its creepy end — the slapsticky post-vomit kiss in the trailers sets up a truly squirm-in-your-seat scene a moment later). He’s violent. He doesn’t just need the bipolar-treating medication that he decides is unnecessary halfway through the movie; he possibly needs more medication. He is probably delusional and possibly headed for a breakdown that involves a rifle and a clock tower. Whereas the dudes in the movies we normally see him in are rudderless, Ronnie has direction, crazy direction, and could use a little calming down.

That makes this a different kind of comedy (for starters, one that’s not as funny as you’d probably want it to be). There is as much “wow, this is really messed up” as there are chuckles. Your reaction is clearly as much a part of the what-this-all-means equation as the stuff on the screen. And, I guess, I find that kind of interesting. Not every comedy, even dark comedy like this, has to be funny in the same way. Not every movie has to keep me comfortable and laughing throughout. But I don’t have to recommend it either. C

Rated R for pervasive language, graphic nudity, drug use, sexual content and violence. Written and directed by Jody Hill, Observe and Report is an hour and 26 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Warner Bros.