It’s hard to take Seth Rogen seriously. Which is probably why “Observe and Report,” a darkly comic tale about a bipolar mall security guard’s delusions of grandeur, rather works. You know the deal. The sad sack is so desirous of a status outside his disparaged lot in life that not only do we empathize, but soon we, too, believe in his inner champion.
Temporarily abandoning his cachet as one of Hollywood’s top movie slackers, Mr. Rogen is Ronnie Barnhardt, a self-styled peace officer without portfolio or pistol. Heartening his similarly disadvantaged, ragtag crew of losers after an elusive flasher puts the mall in an uproar, he consoles, “Well, at least we have Mace and Tasers.”
In turn, Ronnie, who adds a bit of mad mongrel to his time-honored underdog, receives nightly encouragement from Mom, hilariously played by Celia Weston. Unfortunately, with each boost he can’t help but ask if she’s drunk. She inevitably answers in the affirmative. Yet viewed within the film’s nutty parameters, the dysfunction is touching.
Of course by day, strutting the mall like a peacock, none of that forlornness exists for the superhero just waiting to self-actualize. He routinely lets a feisty little merchant know who’s boss, gloms a free coffee from Nell the temporarily crippled barista and reads the riot act to his nebbish boss. But the biggest flurry of feathers is reserved for Brandi.
Working the makeup counter, she’s his gal, his bashert. Only thing is, she doesn’t know it yet. A bleached blonde with black highlights to underline her demography, she’d just as soon the big goon leave her alone. However, when the flasher abashes the lass with full frontal assault, Ronnie sees his chance. He’ll catch the pervert and win the lady fair.
But this proves harder than first thought. So they call in the police. Curses! Heretofore the sheriff ‘round these parts, not only is Ronnie’s authority usurped, but Ray Liotta’s Detective Harrison takes offensive pleasure in pointing out the rent-a-cop’s lesser rung on the people protection ladder. Gee, what’s a deluded, potentially dangerous soul to do?
That’s easy. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. It was always there anyway, a scant layer below his consciousness. The bipolar thing just always precluded it. But aw, heck…these are extraordinary times. True love and a world that needs fixing beckon. That’s it. He’ll become a cop. Harrison hands him the application along with by a hearty, derisive laugh.
But not so for Mom and his mall guard homeys. They proudly cheer him on, celebratory cake and all. And hey, look at this: Even we’re taken aback when Ronnie is soon wowing them at the academy. But the real kicker comes when Harrison spitefully abandons our boy in the ghetto, whereupon he thrashes a gang of toughs and collars a crack dealer.
We laugh at the insanity, the sheer stupidity and the innocent reveries of glory. Though, sometimes, we’re not quite sure if hyena-like outbursts are in good taste. Certainly much of the material isn’t. Call it a guilty thrill, the film version of an inappropriate hand gesture, a declaration of freedom from good manners, albeit for only eighty-six minutes.
Director Jody Hill’s script, penned in the New Raunchiness (i.e.- “Superbad” and “Knocked Up”), is the modality’s first use in a movie with serious overtones. The pills Ronnie pops are prescribed, not recreational. Not all will agree that mainstreaming him into a heroic role, making him fodder for belly laughs, represents a bold new tolerance.
That aside, much of the screenplay’s appeal is rooted in oddball characterizations and the commercial blasphemy inherent to its style. Funny in practically silent roles are twins Matt and John Yuan (Matt and John Yuen, respectively) as Ronnie’s sycophantic subordinates. They nod in complete agreement when informed of their expendability.
But he feels quite differently about Dennis (Michael Peña), his constantly flattering, main man. Taken on a lost weekend of revelry by the chatty assistant, some weird surprises along the way help reveal Ronnie’s true mettle. It also isn’t long before much-adored Brandi, played by Anna Faris, divulges what stirs beneath her perceived allure.
The run-amok cadence is sharply counter-balanced by Mr. Liotta’s perennially annoyed symbol of splash-in-the-the-face reality. Hence the farcical goings-on, for all their edgy, contemporary sneer, etch an essentially traditional, comedic fairy tale. It’s the irreverent, R-rated way “Observe and Report” tells it that cautiously advises a look-see.
“Observe and Report,” rated R, is a Warner Bros. Pictures release directed by Jody Hill and stars Seth Rogen, Anna Faris and Ray Liotta. Running time: 86 minutes