Dir: Jody Hill. US. 2009. 86 mins.
Watching Observe And Report is like babysitting a hyperactive boy - it's precocious, unpredictable and amusing in small stretches, but after a while you wish it would settle down and focus. Building off the small cult success of his 2008 indie comedy The Foot Fist Way, writer-director Jody Hill's big-studio debut is an ironic comedy about a mentally unstable mall cop (played by Seth Rogen) who might have a little Travis Bickle beneath his smiling exterior. Milking its R rating for maximum comic inappropriateness, Observe And Report is too uneven to be deemed a success, although its anarchic spirit might make it a beloved cult item.
Observe And Report opens in the US on April 10, by which time the similarly-themed (but more kid-friendly) PG-rated comedy Paul Blart: Mall Cop may finally be leaving theaters after an impressive two-month run and a domestic gross of over $138m. Star Seth Rogen has had success with several recent R-rated comedies including Knocked Up and Pineapple Express, but the question remains whether audiences will be suffering mall-cop fatigue by the time this opens.
Ronnie (Rogen) works as a security guard at a suburban mall where he fantasises about dating stuck-up cosmetics employee Brandi (Anna Faris). Unfortunately, a mysterious flasher is tormenting people in the parking lot and someone is robbing the mall's stores, which brings Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta) in to investigate. Threatened by Harrison's status as a real cop, Ronnie vows to hunt down the flasher and apprehend the burglar.
Because of the close proximity of their release dates, Observe and Report will inevitably be compared to Paul Blart, and while there are some striking similarities in their plots and main character, this adult comedy feels more tonally reminiscent of The Cable Guy, the 1996 Jim Carrey comedy which struggled to balance silly slapstick humour with a dark, imbalanced central character. Hill has assigned himself an equally difficult task in trying to wring laughs from a man whom we slowly begin to realise is a legitimate threat to those around him.
While the premise has merit, Hill's central story about the two mall mysteries isn't very interesting. Instead, much of the comedy relies on throwaway bits at the edge of the narrative, usually involving shocking behaviour outside the parameters of a normal studio comedy. Some of these moments are hysterical, including an extended verbal spar built around the repetition of a choice four-letter word, but without an engaging plot to sustain comedic momentum, the cleverer bits feel like isolated non-sequiturs
As the socially awkward, potentially dangerous Ronnie, Rogen has only mixed results. To be fair, though, part of the problem is that the character comes across as a nerdy, closed-off cipher, which works against Rogen's naturally gregarious demeanour. Even more wasted is Faris, who plays a less-compelling variation on her enjoyable bitchy-vixen persona.
As Observe And Report reaches its conclusion, Ronnie's darker side begins to emerge, which causes some unexpectedly violent consequences. As with The Cable Guy, Hill's film gleefully rejects the notion of what's considered in good taste for a mainstream comedy, and even if Hill should be commended for pushing the envelope for the film's finale, the bottom line is that his gambits aren't all that funny. His nervy approach will certainly earn him plaudits from those who like their comedy edgy and misanthropic, but because its characters and storyline aren't terribly well developed, Observe And Report's riskier humour can occasionally feel desperate rather than inspired.
De Line Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures
Donald De Line