Observe and Report(Warner Bros.) is messing with my head. Leaving the screening, I was convinced that the movie was a failure, both cloddish in its intentions and inept in its execution, with two or three darkly funny gags and possibly the most disturbing ending to a comedy ever. The next morning, I wondered if I might not be half-wrong. Was it possible that director Jody Hill did have some interesting ideas about teasing out the latent psychosexual sadism of the cop movie—ideas that the studio’s fear of unmarketable unpleasantness, or Hill’s own mishandling, had kept him from exploring fully and coherently?
Once that door of doubt had been opened, my relation to the movie became totally vertiginous. Who was to say the movie hadn’t succeeded on its own bizarre and inscrutable terms? Was it Hill who wasn’t sure what movie he wanted to make, or me who wasn’t sure what movie I was seeing? Like that brain-eating bug that Ricardo Montalban puts in Chekov’s ear in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, this nasty little comedy is slowly making itself at home in my skull. By the end of the day, I may be blurbing it rapturously for a full-page ad in Variety: “The feel-weird comedy of the season!”
One fixed truth I can hang onto in this maelstrom of contradictory reactions to Observe and Report is that Seth Rogen is miscast in it. (Or is he? Maybe that miscastness is precisely what Hill intended. Ah, shut up, brain.) As Ronnie Barnhardt, the bipolar and delusional head of security at Forest Ridge Mall, Rogen goes deeper than he ever has—and that’s not a good thing. As it turns out, Seth Rogen’s actorly depths do not require sonar to be sounded. In fairness to the Rogester, Ronnie Barnhardt is a tough nut to crack. He must be unhinged and pitiable, frightening and funny, morally repellent and yet identifiably human, something like Robert DeNiro’s Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy.
There aren’t a lot of actors alive who could play Rupert Pupkin; even DeNiro himself, now in his later, broader phase, might have lost the knack. But there’s someone who could have nailed Ronnie Barnhardt for half Seth Rogen’s salary: Hill’s muse Danny McBride, who appears briefly in Observe and Report as a Latino crack dealer. McBride, who played a megalomaniacal tae kwon do instructor in Hill’s self-financed debut, The Foot Fist Way, and is now starring as a retired baseball player in Hill’s HBO series, Eastbound and Down, has a knack for seeming at once achingly vulnerable and frighteningly deranged. Rogen can do the vulnerability but not the derangement: His comic center has always been his sanity, the sense he gives of being the lone earthbound pragmatist wryly observing the surrounding folly.
So then, Ronnie Barnhardt. Like the hero of the thematically similar but tonally antithetical Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Ronnie is a failed police-academy student who takes his retail security job far too seriously. But unlike the benign and cuddlesome Blart, Ronnie is also an unapologetic asshole and a scary sonofabitch. He lords his petty authority over his “Special Elite Task Force” of fellow mall cops, the fanatically loyal Dennis (Michael Pena) and gun-crazed identical twins John and Matt Yuen (played, in a nifty casting joke, by gun-crazed identical twins John and Matt Yuan). After a trenchcoated flasher exposes himself to several mall patrons and employees, including Brandi (Anna Faris), the makeup-counter clerk of Ronnie’s dreams, Ronnie vows to track down the pantsless offender at all costs. The real cop assigned to the case (a glowering, perfectly cast Ray Liotta) takes a fancy to the dimwitted Brandi, and he and Ronnie enter into a bitter rivalry to win her affections and catch the flasher.
Observe and Report has already become a movie about which people are staking out positions. On the Daily Beast, Variety’s Anne Thompson calls Observe and Report “a realistic indie action comedy” that “deconstructs movie cliches about hero fantasy.” Those confidently asserted genre categories suggest a far greater control of tone (and a more cerebral approach) than Jody Hill either achieves or intends. New York magazine’s Dan Kois makes a persuasive case that Ronnie’s tequila-and-Klonopin-enhanced night of sex with a nearly unconscious Brandi is, by any reasonable standard, rape. I’d argue, a little queasily, that by the unreasonable standards of this movie’s alternate moral universe, Brandi’s midscene exhortation—”Did I tell you to stop, motherfucker?”—constitutes consent. (It certainly constitutes one of the movie’s biggest laugh lines.)
But Kois is right when he points out that whatever you call what Ronnie does to Brandi, it’s far from being the most unpleasant act his character engages in. In an interview, Jody Hill has observed that, in focus-group screenings, the scenes that haters called the most offensive were the exact same ones that fans found the funniest. Ronnie’s scenes with his falling-down drunk of a mother, played by fearless stage actress Celia Weston, get laughs by taking the dysfunctional-but-loving family trope to places few comedies would dare. (“Remember when I soiled myself the other night?” she asks him tenderly. “You were really there for me.”) And while I had trouble locating the chuckles in a scene where Ronnie and his mall-cop pal beat up a group of skateboarding teens while on a drug bender, Hill certainly can’t be faulted for pulling his punches.
The final chase scene—you can listen to the “Spoiler Special” podcast above for details—shifts abruptly from uproarious raunch to nauseating gore, then ends on a note of triumph that’s curiously out of keeping with the movie’s own logic. All along we’ve been watching Ronnie slowly hoist himself on the petard of his own unchecked aggression. For there to be even a hint of redemption (and depending how you read the last scene, there may be way more than a hint) throws everything that came before into question, and breaks an unwritten contract with the viewer. What’s meant (I think) to be a “fuck you” to action-movie conventions reads instead as a “fuck you” to the audience. Observe and Report tickets should come with a free breath mint, because however hard you’ve been laughing, that ending leaves a seriously bad taste in your mouth.
Slate V: The critics on Observe and Report and other new movies