Director: Jody Hill
Starring: Seth Rogen, Anna Faris, Michael Pena, Collette Wolfe, Ray Liotta, Celia Weston Patton Oswalt, Jesse Plemons
Running Time: 86 min.
★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)
It's so rare when a comedy dares to do something different that when one does it sticks out like a sore thumb. Such is the case with Jody Hill's Observe and Report. I guess you'd have to call it a comedy since it is very funny but nearly all the humor is of the darkly subversive variety, not the laugh-out-loud "haha" kind you'd expect from the advertising. It's so dark that it could almost be called a violent tragedy with comedic elements thrown in for seasoning. Whatever it's supposed to be, Seth Rogen decided he would rather act in his own personal Taxi Driver instead. And it's a good thing he did.
This film goes places most mainstream American comedies can only dream as Rogen dares audiences to accept him as a violent, mentally unbalanced date rapist (!). It's no wonder everyone stayed away, yet still a shame they did because this is the first comedy to come along in a while that actually contains socially relevant ideas and will still have you thinking days after you've seen it. One viewing probably isn't enough to fully absorb this.
I sympathize with all who complain Rogen is overexposed because he is to an extent, but when an actor works hard to prove he's worthy of the attention he's getting, I don't have an issue with it. No one can say he's been coasting or phoning it in since hitting it big with Knocked Up and this represents the pinnacle of his efforts, revealing a shocking hidden dimension to his talent we've never been exposed to. The spirit of another dark comedy, The Cable Guy, lives on in every scene of the picture, only this is sicker and more depraved, just as bipolar as the film's lead character. It also joins another Rogen film, Funny People, and this year's Adventureland, as comedies marketed as something they weren't, sharing with the latter one of the year's best soundtracks. But what's scariest is that if this were actually marketed as what it was, there's a good possibility EVEN FEWER people would have seen it. Hill has constructed a film that seems deliberately intended to shock and attain cult status, which it likely will. Yes, it knows it's cool. But that's hardly a problem when it really is every bit as cool as it thinks it is.
Rogen plays Ronnie Barnhardt, the bipolar head of security at Forest Ridge Mall who lives at home with his alcoholic mother (Celia Weston) and is not so secretly in love with the make-up counter girl Brandi (Anna Faris). When a serial flasher begins terrorizing the mall's patrons, Ronnie sees it as his big opportunity to step up and come to the traumatized Brandi's rescue by launching his own investigation. He assembles a crack team consisting of Dennis (a crazily cast Michael Pena), the Yuen twins (John and Matt Yuan) and newbie Charles (Friday Night Lights' Jesse Plemons) to uncover and apprehend the culprit. This ruins the plans of Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta in his best role in YEARS), whose own investigation is being sabotaged by Ronnie's shenanigans. A nasty feud begins, dragging to the surface Ronnie's lifelong dream to join the police force, a near-impossibility given his unstable mental condition. It isn't enough that he merely defeats Harrison at his own game. He actually wants to be him.
The brilliance of the film is how careless it is. Almost as if it was intentionally made for the studio to lose money. How many comedies do you see where the characters are shown shooting heroin? Or where the hero date rapes a nearly unconcious girl after she's vomited all over herself? It's sick stuff and Rogen plays it completely straight, his character operating under the illusion that he's always doing the right thing and is the protector. Of course in actuality, he's far more of a threat and much more unbalanced than the streaker he's trying to bring to justice. A fact lost on every other character in the film.
Expectations are challenged and reversed, putting the viewer in the awkward position of rooting for a psychopath. This is especially true with the strange relationship that develops between Ronnie and Detective Harrison. One scene in particular, where Harrison vindictively sets him up, has a payoff you would have never guessed any writer could be smart enough to think of, much less have the guts to pull off.
In what can't amount to more than 10 minutes of screen time, Anna Faris gives a supporting performance unmatched by most actresses so far this year. No joke. At one point Ronnie describes Brandi as "the most beautiful girl in the world," but Faris peels the layers away to reveal her instead as the ugliest and most repulsive. She shows complete fearlessness and a total lack of vanity in going to all the uncomfortable places the part requires. At first glance you think she's going to be playing another lovable, air- headed ditz but it soon becomes obvious this is much darker and very far removed from that.
Brandi is so self-centered and detestable that even her worst act of betrayal against Ronnie isn't an act of betrayal at all because that would operate under the false assumption that anyone's else's feelings would be on her radar screen. Faris makes every second this character is onscreen a vile, unpleasant experience in which we quickly lose patience with Ronnie for not being able to see through this. Ever wonder what would happen if the super-talented Faris were given darker, more challenging material to work with? Here, we finally find out.
The ending of the film is disturbing in that Ronnie's delusional actions are actually considered heroic by these people. As if that's not enough, Hill's screenplay also forces us to identify with him and them. We see how he feels marginalized by society and the scenes with his frequently drunk mother are sad, but strangely touching. The Taxi Driver comparison is appropriate because despite the vulgar humor around him, Rogen plays Ronnie as scary, not funny, and the entire movie seems to exist in this pitiless vacuum of moral depravity.
If the movie has any heart at all it belongs to disabled food court worker Nell (played brilliantly by Collette Wolfe), whose friendliness and optimism in the face of verbally abusive treatment from her manager (Patton Oswalt) so starkly contrasts to the goings on around her that the character really leaps off the screen as someone special. It's such a well-written part, never cloying or begging for sympathy as we hope the clueless Ronnie eventually sees what's been right in front of his face the entire time.
I'm not familiar with Jody Hill's polarizing work and have never seen his cult comedy The Foot-Fist Way or Showtime series Eastbound and Down, both of which star Danny McBride (who cameos in this as a gang member), but I now have a good idea what to expect. It's kind of sad that a comedy has more to say about the society we live in than most dramas released recently. That Hill somehow manages to do it all in an economically sound running time of 86 minutes and with a killer soundtrack (featuring obscure gems from The Yardbirds, Queen, The Band and Patto) to heighten the crazy mood, is even more impressive. This isn't Paul Blart: Mall Cop, but as dark as it is it's still a lot of fun because there's a real thrill in watching a comedy take chances like this. Observe and Report proves that it isn't showing off if you're able to back it up.