****/**** Image A Sound A Extras B-
starring Seth Rogen, Anna Faris, Michael Peña, Ray Liotta
written and directed by Jody Hill
by Ian Pugh The tide is changing, that much is clear. In just the last month alone, Paul Rudd and Jason Segel have turned a dependence on male bonding into a crisis of sexual identity (I Love You, Man), while Greg Mottola has deromanticized teenage nostalgia (Adventureland). Now, with their thoroughly disturbing Observe and Report, Jody Hill and Seth Rogen finish prying loose the grip that Will Ferrell and Judd Apatow have had on American comedy these past few years. More importantly, the film finally gives a clear voice to the ineluctable madness that the cinema of 2009 has poked and prodded at up to this point. The deadly sociopathy of Alan Moore's Rorschach blooms at last in security guard Ronnie Barnhardt (Rogen), approached with frightened apprehension and a full understanding as to why he would nevertheless be lauded as a hero. As a result, the movie he inhabits is difficult, devastating, and paints our most recent cycles of vulgar, man-child humour as an empire built on unspoken psychosis and violent outbursts. Suddenly, the idea of Ferrell beating up a swarm of grade-schoolers in Step Brothers doesn't seem so hilarious.
Indeed, the picture begins on such a sour note that you're not entirely sure how this could bear out as a comedy, with a serial flasher stalking a shopping-mall parking lot screaming obscenities and threatening rape. Intimidated by the sudden appearance of police detective Harrison (Ray Liotta, never better), Ronnie, the head of the mall's security, orchestrates his own investigation into the matter--all the while attempting to become a cop in his own right and protect "the only thing in the mall worth protecting," i.e. Brandi (Anna Faris) from the cosmetics department. Already doomed to confusion with and snarky comparison to Kevin James's flat-out awful Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Observe and Report shares a functionally identical scenario but adds a few unbearably dark twists, making the wannabe cop a bipolar gun nut and the mother (Celia Weston) with whom he lives a damaged alcoholic--and casually punctuating the mall cop's infatuation with the cosmetics girl with date-rape. Ultimately, both films are about incompetent, underachieving buffoons offered a taste of heroic authority, though where Paul Blart uses this as pretext to cutely spoof Die Hard, Observe and Report, clearly citing Dirty Harry and Taxi Driver as its antecedents, can only see something terribly destructive in Ronnie's delusions of power.The other title bound to come up in conversation about Observe and Report is Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love, which also interpreted a comedian's volatile persona as harbouring mental illness. The crucial difference, however, is that there you recognize almost immediately that something is wrong, deeply wrong, with Adam Sandler's arrested clown. For all intents and purposes, Ronnie's thoughtlessly inappropriate comments and profane childishness are no different from Rogen's shtick in various Apatow joints, and the movie itself is more a reflection than a refraction of its genre. But every scene that's played for laughs leaves you with a nagging question: why, for instance, does Ronnie pop pills from a prescription bottle every now and then? Why is he so nervous when told he must take a psychological exam to enrol in the police academy? Why does his brutal beating of a gang of drug dealers culminate in silence? (After Harrison leaves him to die in a rough part of town, Ronnie misinterprets this assault as an initiation of sorts, referring to "the six dead crackheads I left back there"--who are never spoken of again.) There is altogether too much silence in Observe and Report, and in the way it's presented, you're expected to fill in the gaps with your own laughter because you don't know how else to respond.
The more inappropriate the scenario, the better the punchline--or so we've been taught, right?--and this mentality reaches fever pitch at the dreaded psych exam, as Ronnie describes his desire to cleanse the streets of crime with a shotgun that will "blow everything away." You're told point-blank that he's simply stopped taking psychotropic medication to keep his bipolar disorder in check, but Rogen's schlub is still so ingratiating that you tell yourself he means well and continually rationalize away Ronnie's behaviour as one comic misunderstanding after another.* And then, upon his inevitable failure to join the police force, Ronnie and his deputy (a bizarre Michael Peña) drown their sorrows in coke and smack before indulging in an ultra-violent spree aimed at loitering skateboarders. All the warning signs and awkward pauses from the first half of the picture come rushing back, and you realize that the misinterpretations were always yours to make; there's not a single joke in this whole sordid affair that can't be traced back to something serious and terrifying. Suffice it to say, I had a difficult time scraping my jaw off the theatre floor.
Observe and Report could be seen as a continuation of the artificial self-confidence that Hill explored in his previous film, The Foot Fist Way. Here, though, this theme speaks to the post-9/11, post-Iraq War climate, infected as it is by a domestic paranoia that interprets defiance and crime as personal offenses to be dealt with accordingly. (Perpetually suspecting terrorism, Ronnie harasses a Middle Eastern mall employee (Aziz Ansari) to the point where restraining orders are filed--and it escalates to yet another altercation that ends in sudden violence.) It's important and significant to label the flasher as the Scorpio Killer to Ronnie's Harry Callahan (considering that they are essentially self-rationalizing symptoms of the same illness) and to see Ronnie as the Travis Bickle of the 21st century (considering his lack of self-awareness as he expresses disgust for the scum of the earth).
Even these signifiers are inadequate in describing how Observe and Report combats the collective insanity of the modern day. The burden of responsibility to protect oneself from invisible threats has unrealistically shifted onto the unprepared shoulders of the Everyman, who can only compensate for his lack of a badge with personal convictions. In declaring itself an ideological perversion of "to serve and protect," Observe and Report implies that this shift can result in unequivocal disaster--there's no other way to explain why Ronnie commits his most horrific/"heroic" acts as a beleaguered civilian without any pretense of authority. It should be said that Rogen is fantastic at handling these hefty concepts, excusing his overexposure of late by revealing something furious and lonely beneath the shell of his laid-back persona. In chipping away at that incredibly popular façade, who could have predicted there'd be such a mad, dangerous sign of the times underneath? Originally published: April 10, 2009.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Observe and Report boasts a searing pop-art palette separated with remarkable precision on Warner's Blu-ray release of the film, whose 2.40:1, 1080p transfer wrests--sans electronic assistance--a level of detail from the image that is often striking. Contrast is deep and rangy. The accompanying Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio honours an active, nay, hyperactive mix that delivers on the movie in Ronnie's head during the action scenes, such as they are. Uniformly proffered in 16x9-enhanced standard-definition, extras begin with a whopping 27-minute stretch of "additional scenes," surprisingly few of which are extensions of pre-existing material--although that doesn't mean they have any less of a tendency to meander. Among the highlights are Ronnie's poaching of Charles (Matt Damon-esque Jesse Plemons) from a restaurant inside the mall--which explains why Charles isn't in uniform the first time we see him in the finished film--as well as a droll send-off for that character; a proper introduction to the storeowner who gets his car booted; and a nice, languid pan around the psychotic décor of Ronnie's bedroom. (As abrupt as Observe and Report can be, none of this stuff feels essential.)
At less than half the length, a 12-minute "Gag Reel" is even more of an endurance test, though there is some novelty in seeing a guy like Ray Liotta in one of these things. "Seth Rogen & Anna Faris: Unscripted" (8 mins.) starts off as a compilation of outtakes from the dinner scene between the two madly-improvising actors, but the EPK instincts of the disc's producers soon take over and we're left with the usual talking-heads mutual appreciation society. "Basically Training" (7 mins.) is mostly focused on the stunts as performed by a non-doubled Rogen and choreographed by the legendary Gary Hymes, while a "Forest Ridge Mall Security Recruitment Video" (3 mins.) is a pitiful excuse for faux-propaganda that tries to pass off digitally degraded clips from the film as corporate-generated material. (The folks behind the Adventureland platter put way more care and effort into a similar gag.) There is a PiP commentary with Rogen, Faris, and writer-director Jody Hill, but because it requires Profile 1.1 I couldn't access it; a DVD-based Digital Copy of Observe and Report is bundled with this BD. Originally published: September 30, 2009.