He Said/She Said: Observe and Report

by | Apr 14th, 2009 | 3:45PM | Filed under: Theatrical Reviews

Wondering if Observe and Report is any good? Well, that’s actually a tricky question. So much so that it’s going to take two of us to figure out.

Locke Says: Observe and Report comes to theaters as the first mainstream feature from director Jody Hill, whose tiny labor of love film The Foot Fist Way–about a sad-sack karate instructor–is easier to admire than to truly enjoy. Hill’s recent HBO co-creation Eastbound & Down—the story of a washed-up major-league pitcher—comes off much more effectively and is often hilarious. Both those productions starred Hill’s DeNiro, Danny McBride (from Tropic Thunder and Pineapple Express), and both of them trade heavily on the idea of inept losers with delusions of grandeur and some major anger issues.

Observe and Report follows the same formula, only this time instead of McBride, the unlikable aggro “jerk” (sorry, it’s a family blog—I think we all know the better term) is played by Seth Rogen, and the plot follows Paul Blart: Mall Cop pretty closely. Rogen—who’s built his deserved comedic reputation by serving up cuddly,
befuddled stoners—goes very dark here. The Scorsese
references have been flying, with many folks noting that Rogen’s Ronnie
Barnhardt is the Travis Bickle or Rupert Pupkin of rent-a-cops. Likewise, the mall Ronnie patrols is not the realization of the American Dream, but its over-fed, over-consuming graveyard.

Ronnie’s iron grip on the Forest Ridge Mall is shaken when a flasher begins appearing in the parking lot. (The sex offender is of the retro-Benny Hill variety, complete with trench coat and socks.) Seeing his chance to shine (and perhaps finally get real guns for his security team), Ronnie sets out to catch the pervert, and in the process show up local police detective Ray Liotta; impress Brandi (Anna Faris), the slatternly cosmetics-counter woman he has his eye on; and perhaps become a real cop.

So that’s the set-up, but the catch is that this movie is about as far from Paul Blart as Taxi Driver is from Taxi—as far from The Santa Clause as Bad Santa.
Ronnie does not have a sweet, sensitive side. Brandi does not have a
heart of gold. And Hill is not the least bit interested in serving up
predictable, feel-good comedy. In fact, for a lot of Observe and Report
he doesn’t bother to serve up any sort of comedy. And when he does,
it’s ugly, cruel, and so utterly deadpan ironic that you chuckle more
at the idea of it then anything else.

Erika Says: If you all you knew about Observe and Report was what you gathered from this trailer, you’d expect to at least snicker—if not outright howl—throughout the majority of its eighty-six-minute running-time.  Heck, even with the tip-off Locke provided above about the dark undercurrent of the film, you’d still figure that Seth Rogen plus Anna Faris would equal comedic gold, right?

The interesting thing is, while I found myself laughing out loud several times during this film, it was hardly ever because of something Faris or Rogen’s characters did.  Rather, it was the supporting cast that provided the comedic relief after Brandi and Ronnie made me squirm in my seat.  The funniest of the crew—by far—was Michael Peña, who embodied Dennis, Ronnie’s right-hand man on the security team.  What Ronnie did not need in his quest to catch the flasher was a fearless sidekick egging him on, bolstering his already overinflated sense of self-righteousness.  Dennis gave Ronnie not only that encouragement, but also some other things Ronnie’s probably could’ve done without.


Then there was Ronnie’s mother, a raging alcoholic played by Celia Weston.  Her performance was brilliant, but she didn’t go solely for the easy laughs.  Sure, she passed out and slobbered all over herself, but it was her deadpan delivery of hurtful truths that made her character memorable.

Finally, I must mention Collette Wolfe, who brought to life the sweet, innocent Nell.  Nell is a temporarily disabled fellow employee at the mall, who greets Ronnie every morning with an expectant smile and a steaming hot cup of coffee.  She likes Ronnie for who he is, but of course he’s too busy trying to get with Brandi to pay much attention to the Food Court Girl Next Door.

Locke Says: I agree completely about the supporting cast–as is often the case in these sorts of subversive comedies, the “back-up” players are as strong, if not stronger than the leads. (Rogen should know, as it was his back-up to Steve Carell in 40-Year-Old Virgin that boosted his big-screen career). And Faris was brilliant, playing the more accurate, real-life (and uglier) version of the airhead she was so great as in The House Bunny. But again, can’t warn you enough. Don’t think, “I liked her in House Bunny, I’ll like her here”–not unless you’re prepared for a date rape gag that walks daringly along that line of “funny or sick?”

And I want to also toss some praise out there for Patton Oswalt, one of my favorite current American comedians, who, as usual, doesn’t have much to do as Nell’s boss, but sneers every ounce out of the bit part. And to another member of Ronnie’s Special Elite Task Force: Jesse Plemons, Landry from the Friday Night Lights series!

ObserveandreportcartIn fact, the weak spot in the cast might be Rogen himself. He does fine with the crazed, cruel stuff as Ronnie, but his natural likability is either the film’s biggest stumbling block or its secret, subversive weapon. No matter how awful and unsettling Ronnie is, there’s a part of us, as viewers, who still think “Well, it’s that nice Rogen boy–how bad can he really be?”

(Rogen taking the role is perhaps oddly related to the moment at the start of Once Upon a Time in the West, when Henry Fonda–until then known as America’s Stalwart Figure of Righteousness looked at the young boy and drawled to his henchmen, “Well, now that you’ve said my name…” Though I doubt Rogen’s career is hurt by Observe and Report the way Fonda’s was after OUTW. Rogen knows he can try out off-beat, disturbing stuff and bounce right back to his warm, fuzzy roles.)

Rogen is in Observe and Report to boost its box-office profile, but you can’t help but wonder if the whole thing would have played much better with Danny McBride (who turns up in a cameo)–McBride always seems to be barely holding back his ego-maniacal rage, tempered only by his utter ineffectiveness. On the other hand, I can understand the argument that by casting a sweetheart like Rogen, Hill keeps pulling the rug out from under an audience that on some level just can’t believe Ronnie is this much of a nightmare.

Erika Says: Surprisingly enough (since I’m not
a fan of Faris or Rogen), I enjoyed this film as well.  It’s funny that
both Locke and I are feeling the need to put a whole bunch of caveats
in front of our mostly positive reactions toward the one—I certainly
cop to feeling sheepish about laughing at the atrocious acts of
violence depicted in Observe and Report.  Even some of the
non-violent scenes were so thoroughly vulgar and offensive that I felt
like I had to glance around the theater to ensure it was OK that I let
out so much as a breath in response. That’s why I in no way feel that
this movie is ready for mass consumption, so to speak.

I think the vast, vast majority of people who go to
see this film will feel tricked, because they won’t know about director
Jody Hill’s morbid sense of humor or the tone of his other work.  All
they’ll know is that Seth Rogen usually plays a funny dude and Anna
Faris usally plays a ditzy chick and if you put them together in a
“mall cop” movie it should be a laugh a minute.  So when the sex, drugs
and violence overtake the light jabs at Americana, I bet a lot of
moviegoers will furrow their brows and think, “What did I get myself
into here?”   However, for me, something about the film just worked.
My reaction to Observe and Report was much like my reaction to Heathers twenty (gasp) years ago: I couldn’t recall the last time I’d seen a movie as deliciously evil.

Locke says: As the guy who really does consider Shakes the Clown to be the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies, I think it’s safe to say I admire comedies that push the envelope, even if they leave you more confused and unsettled than amused. People are saying that by compromising his usual pitch-black comedic sensibilities, Hill left Observe and Report high and dry—that fans of The Foot Fist Way and Eastbound & Down will feel they’re getting a watered-down product, while anyone who wanders into the theater expecting another fun Rogen comedy will be either apoplectic with disgust or simply left empty and disappointed. But I think Hill made exactly the film he wanted to, and I believe the lack of big laughs is intentional.

However, that leaves the question as to whether Observe and Report is any good—if it’s worth seeing. Well, clearly that depends only on your tolerance for cruel, heartless humor that goes way beyond awkward into pure misanthropy. And it depends how you feel about “comedies” that step so far back from the idea of a “joke” that you end up laughing at the lack of humor. That said, yes, I liked Observe and Report quite a bit. (It has the best use of Queen songs on the soundtrack since Shaun of the Dead.) But I’d only recommend it to a very small handful of friends and even then with a lot of warnings–not about the twisted humor, but rather the low laugh-per-minute ratio.

What saved it for me was that, after 90 minutes of deadpan borderline conceptual humor, the movie paid off in the end with a huge, “Oh my god! I can’t believe I’m laughing at THAT” moment—a punchline so shocking and wrong it made the entire film feel like one long, perfect set-up. (It’s similar in effect to that moment in in the car in Pulp Fiction when Vincent Vega turns to ask Marvin “C’mon, Marvin. Do you think God came down from Heaven and stopped the bullets?” ) Where 10 minutes before the end of the film I was ready to write Observe and Report off as a grimly noble misfire, instead I walked out of the theater grinning from ear to ear, and feeling just a little guilty about it.

2 Responses to “He Said/She Said: Observe and Report

  1. ChrisV82
    Posted on April 14, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    I found myself laughing during the movie, but the plot is absolutely ridiculous. Critics praising this as some kind of deep, philosophical expose of the human psyche makes Fox News’ mental gymnastics seem amateur. Observe & Report is no more a commentary on life than Dumb & Dumber was, and the plot is just as realistic.
    I’ll give comedies a lot of leeway in the story and plot department, but this film was too excessively stupid. If it wasn’t for the solid performances of the cast, the thing would have fallen flat on its face.

  2. Locke Peterseim
    Posted on April 14, 2009 at 5:59 pm

    Chris, I hear what you’re saying, and I agree O&R’s primary purpose was to push the boundaries of not only taste but WHAT “comedy” is. But I think it still also plays as a satire–of consumer culture, of notions about authority and authority figures, of human delusion, etc.
    Don’t get me wrong — that’s NOT mainly what the movie is ABOUT and I would never suggest someone see it for those ideas… But I do think Jody Hill is, at heart, both a provocateur and a social satirist. How successful he is at either of those things is still up for debate.
    (Though I HIGHLY recommend Eastbound and Down, either on HBO reruns/on-demand, or when it eventually hits DVD. Though it’s still very much only for people who like that sort of deadpan, ironic humor, it hits a lot of the comedic and satiric notes O&R missed.)