Observe and Report
Release Date: April 10, 2009
Cast: Seth Rogen, Anna Faris, Ray Liotta, Michael Pena
By Sean Chavel
Get ready for this refreshing beat down: "Observe and Report" is the hardest punch-in-the-gut laugh riot in a long time. Yet, let’s consider finally: How Unlikely Is Seth Rogen? Rogen, that couch potato schlub in perpetual frat-house attire, is the most average looking movie star working today. Up to this point, he’s coasted along playing variances on the pot-smoking underachiever in such hits as “Knocked Up” and “Pineapple Express.” But “O&R” is the first time that Rogen has done a DeNiro and truly immersed himself into playing a character – in this case a troubled and imbalanced head security guard at a typical fashion mall. Part of the movie’s daring is to take upon his bi-polar mental disorder halfway realistically and in turn that makes him humanly recognizable. The antisocial pattern in his character makes the comedy erupt unpredictably and rowdily. There won’t be a funnier movie this year.
If you’re apprehensive at the prospect of seeing another security guard comedy following “Paul Blart” this year, consider yourself uninformed at this point. “Paul Blart” was more kid-friendly and squared in formula while “O&R” is not only liberated and anarchic but embedded in the observation of true human behavior. As Ronnie Barnhardt, proudly donned in mall cop uniform blue, Rogen on his patrol wants to break rules and procedures to crackdown on the mall’s biggest problems: an inside heist job and the capture of a nude flasher terrorizing decent women everywhere. Barnhardt has a love-hate relationship with a seasoned detective played by Ray Liotta (mostly hate) who arrives on the scene to solve these crimes. This threatens Ronnie’s sense of jurisdictional authority. On the upside, maybe Liotta can help him apply for the police academy and let him come aboard detective work too.
No schlub comedy could exist of course without the unattainable beauty. I have certainly seen plenty of comedies, too many actually, about guys in love with the wrong girl who seem pretty and dainty from the beginning only to reveal themselves in due time as self-centered and self-aggrandizing tramps. “O&R” takes a much-improved approached because Ronnie perceives Brandi (Anna Faris) as the object of obstinate beauty even though she completely is a coarse and vulgar tramp from the start – from the audience’s vantage point there is no mistake about this. It’s funnier this way because Rogen is playing one of these narrow-minded pigheaded males fixated on someone, whom aside from cosmetic looks, is completely wrong for him and somehow doesn’t know it. All this in the meantime an easygoing girl named Nell (Collette Wolfe), who provides him with free coffee on a daily basis, is an ideal match who is a readily available cashier at the food court. Of course, Ronnie is blinded to her charms and the joke here is how utterly clueless he is to opportunities in front of him.
Personal space violations are routine for Ronnie and it stretches to extremes. Ronnie, himself a borderline stalker, coerces Brandi to come out onto a date with him and if she doesn’t, he won’t protect her from that nude perv! Ronnie goes off his meds after he is convinced he is in love with her, and as a result starts tripping to his dark side. This reveals his very hostile and belligerent underneath nature. Grown men beating up on kids – unruly skateboard kids in the parking lot this time – is not usually comically successful (leave it to Adam Sandler and his raging tots to make me recoil) but after a series of downfalls the worse than beleaguered Ronnie, with the help of co-partner Dennis (Michael Peña), starts displacing anger on anybody in available sight. Ronnie Bernhardt is a dangerous modern specimen – the angry guy tamed by things going right and set off vehemently by things going wrong. Ronnie’s proudest moment is busting a pre-teen for selling crack by conducting a citizen’s arrest, but he’s still craving the big-time.
If Ronnie’s methods are questionable the movie’s approach is not. Will Ferrell has played caricatures of anti-social nutcases lately but they’re not funny because they are outsized parodies – caricatures that don’t resemble anyone on Earth. Which is a reason I didn’t like Ferrell in “Semi-Pro” and especially did not like him in “Step Brothers.” Rogen’s Ronnie Bernhardt might be a detestable character but he has a human slant, a vulnerability, and we see the goodness peering out from the depths of his mad-dog insecurities. And since the movie’s situations of good job/ bad method are more than halfway believable, you may find yourself choking on your own laughter.
This anti-formula comedy by Jody Hill (“The Foot Fist Way”) is not only funny but daring – and admittedly occasionally deterred by wobbly editing but that is something you’d like to overlook in this case. In high praise, I am reminded of Robert DeNiro playing an abrasive anti-social in “The King of Comedy.” That 1983 film, not given widespread acceptance at its time, was willing to make a troubled and disturbed character a lead protagonist. “O&R” is in the same tradition, although Ronnie Bernhardt is a friend-seeker, thus more likeable, while DeNiro’s Rupert Pupkin was strictly a loner.
A review like this cannot conclude without mention of the climactic male nudity, i.e., Ronnie versus the Flasher. We have arrived at a liberal time in our culture where at the movies male genitalia is being shown copiously (let’s validate the appropriate uses in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Borat” and scold the gratuitous uses in “Step Brothers” and “Watchmen”). “O&R” gets defensible credo for employing male nudity justifiably in a way that generates hysterical comic tumult. When Ronnie finally cracks down on the nude flasher (unknown actor Randy Gambill finally shows face) a wild chase ensues through the mall amidst shoppers. The insidious satire, if you are able to pluck out any meaning, is that Ronnie – with his violent short-fuse – is just as disturbed as this pervert that has menaced the mall.
One more relevant refrain: DeNiro commits deeds in the final act of “The King of Comedy” that is sick and twisted. And here too, Rogen does something sick and twisted (it’s a terrific comic shock). The difference is DeNiro is ultimately punished for his wicked act and Rogen is left off the hook for his heinous act. “O&R” would have been a better comedy, heck, a greater movie had it punished Rogen for his sins because the subversive punchline would have been an honest reveal to his character’s true cluelessness and ignorance (Ronnie clearly doesn’t understand justice of limitations). The closing shots are the only moments where the movie adheres to commercial formula instead of heading heedlessly into the depths of great black comedy.