‘Observe and Report’ goes where almost no comedy should go

2 out of 5 pitchforks

Published On:
Friday, April 10, 2009
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If you or your loved ones experience empathy toward any of the characters in “Observe and Report,” seek immediate help.

Nobody should empathize with such horrible people, especially the protagonist. Laughing, however, is perfectly normal.

Writer and director Jody Hill’s film forgoes pursuing audience sympathy. Instead, it disturbs in a manner reminiscent of “Taxi Driver.”

The protagonist, Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen), is the bipolar head of security at Forest Ridge Mall. And in his mind, he’s the only thing standing between order and chaos.

Ronnie’s other obsessions include Brandi (Anna Faris), a cosmetics-counter girl. In fact, Ronnie is a zealot in almost every faction of his life.

So when Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta) intrudes mall territory to investigate a flasher who visually violated Brandi, Ronnie does all he can to solve the case on his own.

But Ronnie too wants to be an officer of the law. Encouraged by his mother (Celia Weston) and the sweet girl who gives him free coffee, Nell (Collette Wolfe), Ronnie pursues his dream with the fervor with which he pursues everything in his life.

Hill, who previously directed “The Foot Fist Way,” makes it clear that this is not going to be another silly adventure with rent-a-cops. It goes full steam ahead into places almost too dark for comedy.

“Observe and Report” is even more unpredictable because of the familiar set-up. Small-time lawman gets caught up in big conspiracy, saves the day.

Except the big conspiracy doesn’t exist; Ronnie invents it as he goes. Rogen’s character is unlike the lovable losers he’s played before: Ronnie is delusional, unstable and dangerous.

But it’s not just Ronnie. With the exception of Nell, every character in this film is a horrible human being.

Harrison is a sadist, enjoying Ronnie’s pain and nearly killing him.

Brandi is a self-centered, substance-abusing leech. And each part is played with no hint of satire or redemption; it’s just how they are.

Ronnie’s bipolar disorder may endear him to audiences, if only because the other characters don’t have medical reasons for their awful personalities.

Hill holds nothing sacred. In the film, violence and drug use are the most effective and funniest methods to solve problems.

But unlike clear-cut morality stories like “Crash,” these behaviors are treated normally because that’s how these people view themselves — as normal.

Hill takes the characters and creates a social satire of individual worth. Each character’s self-worth makes him or her intolerant of anyone who may challenge that.

Harrison’s investigation is hampered by Ronnie, so he decides to leave him for dead in a dangerous street. Brandi is disgusted with Ronnie, openly discussing her revulsion with him while he buys her drinks. Ronnie reacts with brutal force to all challenges of his authority.

Their delusions are not too different from ones in reality, such as companies’ being “too big to fail” or cable news, slanting coverage to satisfy audience desires for ideological validation.

It’s often hard to watch “Observe and Report.” But for every uncomfortable wince, there’s an equally satisfying laugh.

Oh, and lots of nude flasher penis.

Reach the reporter at cogino@asu.edu.