A bizarre movie with a great payoff.
I don’t know about you, but the one complaint I’m sick and tired of hearing about Taxi Driver is that there aren’t enough dick jokes.
Thank God, then, for Jody Hill’s Observe and Report, a deeply twisted take on Scorsese and De Niro’s seminal vigilante flick, in which Travis Bickle’s shoes are filled by Seth Rogen as an overweight, bipolar mall security guard with a penchant for high-caliber guns and delusions of grandeur. It’s a raunchy, cheap-shot knee-slapper with disturbing glimpses of psychosis, plus a few startling blasts of graphic violence. The result might be the most tonally fucked major studio comedy since The Cable Guy.
Paul Blart, this is not.
Rogen hurls himself into the role of Ronnie Barnhardt with reckless abandon. No longer that cool, laidback pothead with the kickin’ Jewfro, he’s now a tightly wound, hulking thug with a military bristle cut. Ronnie laughs too loud at all the wrong jokes, and barks urgent orders at his mall cop underlings as if they were stationed in Iraq. His unimpressive staff is filled out by Michael Peña’s overgroomed Latin dandy, Friday Night Lights’ resident marblemouth Jesse Plemons, and a couple of Asian twins who overlap each other’s dialogue with identical statements.
But all is not well at the Forest Ridge Mall. For starters, there’s somebody robbing the place every night after closing. Yet trifling matters like grand larceny hardly concern Ronnie, as he’s hell bent on capturing the mall’s trenchcoated flasher—a recurring nuisance last seen wiggling his privates at old ladies in the parking lot.
The pervert’s biggest mistake was targeting Brandi, the contemptuous cosmetics counter gal and object of Ronnie’s obsession. Played by Anna Faris with her usual precision-ditz timing, Brandi’s the drunken-white-trash Cybill Shepherd to Rogen’s suburban sloth De Niro. It doesn’t take much encouragement for Ronnie Barnhardt to decide that his purpose is to serve and protect his boozy, hiccupping angel … and that’s even before he goes off his meds.
Uneven at best, Observe and Report veers erratically from broad slapstick into darker, deeper waters that the filmmaker doesn’t seem sure how to navigate. Hill’s debut feature, The Foot Fist Way, became a cult fetish item in comedy circles, thanks to the single-minded intensity with which Hill humiliated Danny McBride’s dickhead protagonist.
Though a significantly more polished production (then again, it’s probably impossible to make a movie that looks more amateurish than Foot Fist), Hill’s sophomore effort boasts a similar m.o. He never tires of contrasting his character’s outrageously inflated self-image with the banality of his surroundings. Time and again, we watch Ronnie and the security squad descending escalators in grandiose slow-motion, patented “movie hero shots” undercut by obese extras stuffing their faces at the pretzel kiosk in the background.
Ray Liotta turns up as a genuine police officer assigned to investigate the Forest Ridge robberies. Nobody seems to have told Liotta that he’s in a comedy, so the actor plays it straight, growing edgier and more exasperated with Ronnie’s clueless interloping and verbal assaults. After one unfortunate exchange, Liotta’s partner excuses himself from the room saying, “I’m sorry. I thought this was going to be funny but it’s just sad.”
The same could be said for the movie itself, which doesn’t really hang together, yet remains so confrontational and off-putting that it’s hard not to muster a weird sort of respect for it—even when entire sequences just sort of dribble away on a dark cloud of bad vibes. Say what you will about Hill’s sicko squirmy humor, at least it’s distinctive.
But just when you’re about to shrug it all off, along comes Observe and Report’s shocker ending—a sustained tour de force of grotesquerie capped by a punch line that’s so outrageously wrong, I instantly forgave Hill for everything and can’t wait to see what he does next.
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