Observe and Report

(2009) ** 1/2 R
86 min. Warner Bros. Pictures Distribution. Director: Jody Hill. Cast: Seth Rogen, Anna Faris, Michael Pena, Ray Liotta, Jesse Plemons.

/content/films/3386/1.jpgThere are a couple of moments in the new mall-cop comedy Observe and Report when writer-director Jody Hill orchestrates excessive force on the part of anti-heroic loser Ronnie Barnhardt. The picture's sour tone momentarily becomes merrier as a result of these cathartic releases, making this instant cult comedy yet more surreal. While Ronnie fancies himself as a Buford Pusser, it's soon apparent he's a Travis Bickle, but at a time when we've seen seven mass shootings in a month, do we really need the comedy version of Taxi Driver?

Maybe we do. For most of its running time, Observe and Report is a cruel but sharp satire of a certain kind of socially impotent American male, one enabled instead of helped. Where the hit Kevin James comedy Paul Blart: Mall Cop was a soft wish-fulfilling tale of a sad sack made good, Hill tells us to be careful what we wish for: for the "hero" of Observe and Report to succeed in his goal—however well-intentioned—would be a tragedy. With admirably funkiness and bold flavor, Hill has made the anti-Blart, and his box office receipts will no doubt suffer for it. Ronnie (Seth Rogen) has lived a charmless life: his dad "freaked out" and left when he was born, he still lives—in a co-dependent arrangement—with his alcoholic mother (Celia Weston), and he's languishing in the endlessly disappointing job of head of mall security for the Forest Ridge Mall. He hopes against hope that the mall will agree to arm its cops with guns, but in the meantime satisfies his shooting needs at a gun range with his twin colleagues (John and Matt Yuan), of whom he says, "You guys are my infantry. One of you dies, God gave me another one."

The film opens to The Band's "When I Paint My Masterpiece," as a flasher terrorizes the mall parking lot. Starting a pissing war with the local police detective (Ray Liotta, used to great effect), Ronnie insists, "This is a real case. This is my chance to be great." Thus, the "pervert" (Randy Gambill) becomes Ronnie's white whale, but it's one of the film's weird anti-jokes that Ronnie pursues the flasher more in his mind than in reality. In a lame attempt to bring order to chaos, Ronnie forms a "Special Elite Task Force" consisting of the mall-security staff (including Michael Peña as a nihilistic, hedonistic Mike Tyson soundalike and new recruit Jesse Plemons of Friday Night Lights), but in lieu of any kind of strategy to nab the flasher, Ronnie can only become angrier and angrier with each incident. Meanwhile, like Blart, Ronnie explores the possibility of becoming a real policeman. Though he has no aptitude for dealing with the public ("I know it was horrible—just don't think about his penis"), he demonstrates surprising skill in the area of physically subduing perps. Only one problem: he's bipolar, which might not go over so well at the psych evaluation.

There's also romance, not much aided by Mom's appraisal, "You're handsome, from certain angles." In another echo of Blart, the momma's boy pines for makeup-counter girl Brandi (Anna Faris, in another fearless comic turn), who he daily passes on his rounds. In one way, she's a match for the developmentally arrested Ronnie: she's an overgrown high-school archetype—a mean-spirited, selfish, self-styled queen bee (with one gay worker bee at her side). Because of Ronnie's tunnel-vision attraction to Brandi, he's blithely dismissive of the other girl he sees daily: Nell (Collette Wolfe), the pretty counter girl at Toast-a-Bun. Perversely, the audience roots for Ronnie to wake up and strike up with Nell, which would be a tragedy for the sweet girl.

Observe and Report is full of these subversions of the loser-makes-good comedic monomyth. Other than loving his mother (and the mitigating factor of his mental disorder), Ronnie is wholly unlikeable. He's a clueless bully with delusions of grandeur, and his drive to succeed is more dangerous than it is praiseworthy. Punctuating his empty promises with the word "Boom," Ronnie is all unreasoned bravado and bizarre disconnect (without irony, he wears a 1980s digital calculator watch and says things like "Finding out whose penis that is is my last shot at redemption"). Hill, whose breakthrough film was the Danny McBride vehicle The Foot Fist Way, takes Observe and Report to darker and darker places, including a Bickle-esque crazy-talk voice-over for Rogen: "I've been chosen to be the protector...The world has no use for another scared man. Right now, the world needs a hero" (amidst this, Hill even leaves in Rogen's "I'm gonna start that again" for optimal weird-out effect).

The film finally arrives at a jaw-dropping climax that delivers big laughs that catch in the throat. That Hill doesn't explicitly denounce or punish Ronnie's insane coup de grace--or identify his exaltation as another of his delusions--puts a lot of faith in the audience to read the national satire of Ronnie's warped heroism; in a land of gun nuts, it's also arguably irresponsible. Who will save us from the Ronnie Barnhardts who understandably see this film as a tale of empowerment?

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Aspect ratios: 2.4:1

Number of discs: 2

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1

Street date: 9/22/2009

Distributor: Warner Home Video

Warner brings Observe and Report home on Blu-ray in a sharp transfer that pleasingly preserves the film's color scheme and contrast. Black level and the picture in general offer solid depth, and the texture and detail add plenty to a surprisingly vibrant picture that maximizes the impact of the source material. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix is equally detailed, serving up comically precise sound effects, full-bodied music, and generally clear dialogue.

The bonus features add some humorous and at times intriguing context for this very strange film. Best of set is the Meeting-of-the-Minds Picture-in-Picture Commentary with Seth Rogen, Anna Faris and writer/director Jody Hill. A sharp HD PiP window offers well-lit photography of the commentary in action, as the trio joke and reminisce about the film's making. No question: it's a highly entertaining track, though definitely more casual than it is primed to deliver behind-the-scenes insights.

The disc also includes seventeen "Additional/Extended Scenes" (27:11, SD) and the sort of "Gag Reel" (12:17, SD) that makes one wonder how they ever got usable takes in the can.

The "Seth Rogen & Anna Faris: Unscripted" (7:38, SD) featurette includes improvisatory outtakes and brief interviews with Rogen, Faris, Michael Pena, and Hill.

"Basically Training" (6:48, SD) focuses on stunts and fights with interviewees Hill, Rogen, Danny McBride, stunt coordinator Gary M. Hymes, and Ray Liotta.

Last up is the "Forest Ridge Mall: Security Recruitment Video" (3:01, SD), a faux bit of promotion.

A second disc holds a Digital Copy, and naturally the disc is BD-Live enabled for accessibility to additional online content.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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