Ronny Barnhardt (Seth Rogen), the head of security for a large mall, takes his job very seriously, overseeing his troupe of three officers including Dennis (Michael Pena) and dealing with his alcoholic mom (Celia Weston). Ronny is bi-polar and seems frustrated that he can never use real guns in his quest for peace and safety at the mall. One day, a flasher begins to terrorize the female customers at the mall and chooses to flash his wares at Brandi (Anna Faris), one of the cosmetic counter girls at the department store. Brandi is the love of Ronny's life (if only Brandi actually knew this), so he immediately vows to find the culprit. When the flasher continues to strike and a burglar begins to target the mall, Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta) is called in to close the case. Ronny and Harrison immediately butt heads and Ronny becomes even more determined to solve both cases.
Written and directed by Jody Hill, "Observe and Report" is the second mall cop comedy to be released since January, but I have every feeling that this film is head and shoulders above the other.
There seems to be a new and burgeoning sub genre of comedy making its way to the multiplexes of America. The first significant example of this was "Pineapple Express" directed by David Gordon Green and starring Seth Rogen and James Franco. In this film, the laughs play side by side with real violence, violence that is the consequence of the actions of the characters. As we watch the stoners try to survive while being pursued by criminals and corrupt cops, we laugh and we flinch from the violence portrayed in the film. In addition to the violence, the characters and the story sort of meander, sort of stumble along. It is an interesting idea and Green pulls it off. In the new film "Observe and Report", director Jody Hill and stars Seth Rogen and Anna Faris have created a very strange universe populated with some laughs and some very strong violence.
These films are interesting because they are so different from most of the other comedies we have the opportunity to see. It's almost like these filmmakers have convinced studios to let them make Independent-like films under their studio banner, spending money on larger budgets with larger casts and more complicated shoots. In a way, they are almost elevating a story that most likely would have exclusively been the fodder of independent filmmakers.
Seth Rogen seems to delight in creating and playing strange characters. As in "Pineapple Express", Ronny is a very different type of comedy lead. He has bipolar disorder and seems to take his job very seriously, strutting through the mall, keeping his eyes open, lording what little authority he has over the patrons and employees who work there. He seems to have an ongoing feud with a man who runs one of the carts and calls him Saddam (Aziz Ansari, TV's "Parks and Recreation"). He also meets a young woman who just started at the Cinnabon-esque stall at the food court. Nell (Collette Wolf) sits at the register; her healing leg propped up, ready and willing to smile at Ronny. This is Ronny's universe and he tries to exact control over it. When he hears that Brandi has been exposed to the flasher, he immediately runs to her side and vows to protect her.
Rogen makes Ronny seem vulnerable and egotistical, lost and driven, all of which fit the character's bipolar disorder. But Rogen brings the character an air of believability. I think we have all known people like Ronny. And in a way, that make him both sadder and funnier. We can identify with Ronny and we see what he is trying to accomplish, even if he has trouble succeeding in many ways.
I have to say Rogen has a certain "every guy" charm about him that has only made each of his films better.
Michael Pena plays Dennis, Ronny's second in command. Dennis is certainly not like any other character we have ever seen Pena ("Crash") play. Dennis has a loose, greasy(?) Afro, wears sunglasses a lot and speaks with a strange lisp. He seems to be as in to his job as Ronny is and they make a good pair. Later, his character has some strange turns that I didn't completely buy.
Anna Faris plays Brandi, the cosmetic counter girl who has captured Ronny's eye. She seems oblivious to anything but the most superficial things around her and doesn't really seem to care about anything else. The character is funny, but we have seen Faris play this role before. Maybe too many times at this point., because she almost seems typecast in the role. She played basically the same type of person in "Just Friends" and the performance was a lot funnier.
Ray Liotta plays Ronny's arch enemy and it is amusing to watch Detective Harrison and Ronny circle each other like kids on an elementary school playground. They seem to take an instant dislike to one another because the Detective realizes Ronny will only get in his way and Ronny realizes this guy might actually solve the crimes that are afoot on his home turf, stealing his glory and threatening his job.
Celia Weston plays Ronny's mom, an unapologetic drunk and she certainly seems to dive into the role whole hog. She is one of the most uncompromising drunks I have ever seen in film.
Nell is a good compliment to Ronny and Collette Wolf brings a sweet quality to the role. You can tell Nell will never be anything other than a food court employee because she seems to enjoy it and doesn't seem to care about doing anything else. Which is fine. But she finds herself in a bad situation because she just got hired at this new place and then had to have surgery, so she sits at the register all day, with her leg propped onto the counter. Ronny seems to like her, and take an interest in her, but his interest in Brandi is more pressing and he can't let anything interrupt his quest for the object of his desire.
The film has a definite dated look, slightly flat and the images are a little grainy, like Hill is trying to evoke the type of films made in the Seventies. This, and the film's setting in a dated mall, gives the project a slightly retro look, making us believe it might have been made before the advent of high def. It works because it helps us think back to the grittier, more interesting films of the 70s, films that took chances with characters and story lines.
"Observe and Report" is very good. It is not a comedy that will make you roll in the aisle, but it creates an interesting atmosphere for an oddball group of characters that will make you laugh and smile and flinch at the violence.