As the title Observe and Report begs for analysis, I herewith declare this Seth Rogen comedy broad but thin and more bleak than uproarious—a humorously downsized homage to foundational ’70s classics like Dirty Harry and, especially, Taxi Driver, cited by writer-director Jody Hill as a key influence.
As the year’s second send-up of an emotionally unbalanced shopping mall security man, it also takes us two-thirds of the way toward a trend. But where the eponymous loser-turned-winner protagonist of the wildly successful and equally slapdash Paul Blart: Mall Cop (played by Kevin James) was a sweet and lovable hypoglycemic with dreams of joining the New Jersey state troopers and wooing the mall’s resident hair-extension specialist, Ronnie Barnhardt is an angry, self-important, crude, racist, bipolar knucklehead, possessed of similar ambitions but played by Rogen with admirable disregard for audience empathy.
Adding to the pathology, Ronnie (analysts will note the gender-ambiguous, infantilizing name) lives at home with his slatternly, sluttish dipso mother (Celia Weston) and haplessly lusts after her youthful counterpart, the hard-partying cosmetics salesgirl Brandi (Anna Faris). Ronnie’s problems with sex and aggression are epitomized in an extended volley of alternately loud and sotto voce “Fuck you”s exchanged with the mall worker he calls Saddam (Aziz Ansari). Longing for a real gun so as to be a real man, this would-be authoritarian tough guy further engages in a destructively competitive relationship with the police detective Harrison (Ray Liotta), who arrives at the mall to investigate a case of male exhibitionism.
Ronnie is obsessed with the flasher (unclothed and credited), as well he might be. This irrepressible exhibitionist exposes himself to Brandi (driving her to orgasmic hysteria) and is repressed Ronnie’s secret sharer. The two men have a certain physical similarity, and Observe and Report‘s most relentless riff is the blatant equation of the flasher’s oft-seen and pointedly unprepossessing dick with the castrated mall cop’s attempt to possess what a Lacanian would call the phallic function. In the movie’s signature image, Ronnie plasters a snapshot of the flasher’s member on his forehead and proclaims, “That’s me!”
Like its unpleasant protag, Observe and Report isn’t so much funny-ha-ha as funny-peculiar. Despite a couple of extended, comic two-handers—Ronnie’s date with Brandi, and his psychological evaluation when he applies for admission to the police academy—the movie’s most convulsive moments are the lunatic, even terrifying, explosions of invective and violence. Off his meds, this alarmingly bellicose bratwurst confidently informs the professionally smiling psychologist that, “At this point in my life, I feel like I could destroy some motherfuckers!”
Indeed. The requisite politically incorrect ethnic vaudeville (which involves Asians, Arabs, and Latinos, but not African-Americans) is a needed cushion for the psychosexual drama. Viewers will be grateful that the singlemindedly simian Rogen, who demonstrates more depth than range, is flanked by two shameless clowns. The hilariously vulgar Faris (last seen in The House Bunny) injects some superbly timed physical comedy, while Michael Peña (better known for serious roles in Lions for Lambs and World Trade Center) contributes a note of nihilistic bromance as Ronnie’s lisping sidekick. Rogen’s best bits are conceptual—as when Ronnie goes “undercover” (which is to say, completely delusional) and, recognized by his colleagues at the mall, denies his utter existence.
Ronnie ultimately devolves into a parody Travis Bickle whose rescue fantasy, to the degree that it can be articulated, centers on the handicapped, abused “born-again virgin” (Collette Wolf) working the mall’s Dunkin’ Donuts equivalent. Still, Observe and Report is not without a certain sociological vérité. Ronnie the Mall Cop is as an iconic expression of irate proletarian populism and brainless role-playing as Joe the Plumber or Rush the Limbaugh—identify or ignore at your peril.