Director Jody Hill begins his mordant comedy Observe and Report by surveying a suburban mall--the glazed shoppers, the indifferent salespeople--to the accompaniment of The Band’s cover of Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece”: Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble. Ancient footprints are everywhere. From these opening moments, decadence lies heavy in the air, though opinions will vary whether Hill’s film is a rebellion against it--a challenge to comic complacency--or merely its latest by-product.
Could it be both? Observe and Report is crass, violent, profane, and transgressive, a film about pathology that frequently seems itself pathological. It is also, more often than not, hilarious. I will not be the first, nor the 31st, to note the resemblances to Taxi Driver. But there may be echoes stronger still of The King of Comedy and the grand delusions of Rupert Pupkin.
Like Pupkin, Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) is a loser who lives with his mother (Celia Weston), dreaming of the big break that will reveal to everyone his thus far well-hidden talents. Unlike Pupkin, Ronnie is a mall security guard, and his big break is the appearance within his jurisdiction of an aggressive flasher who invites female shoppers to “touch Daddy’s dick.” As Ronnie confesses to his mother one night, “Part of me thinks that this disgusting pervert could be the best thing that ever happened to me.” In particular, Ronnie hopes that by solving the case, he will demonstrate his worth to Brandi (Anna Faris), a cosmetic-counter blonde whom the flasher flashed and, Ronnie hyperbolically imagines, will return to stalk and murder. (There is a bit of projection taking place here, at least where the stalking is concerned.)
Like Ahab before him, Ronnie goes in search of his White Willy with all the fervor of love and dementia, deputizing soft-spoken subordinate Dennis (Michael Pena) and competing bitterly with the real detective assigned to the case (Ray Liotta). The movie careens from provocation to provocation: Ronnie’s racist feud with a lotion vendor named “Saddamn” (Aziz Ansari), which plays out as a “Dueling Banjos” of F-bombs; a pills-and-tequila-fueled date with Brandi that concludes in semi-conscious consummation; a burst of authoritarian violence meted out upon the parking-lot skateboard population; and what may be the most memorable foot-chase in contemporary film. Scattered amid the carnage are sly references to Miller’s Crossing (“Look in your heart”), Barry Manilow (whose hit “Mandy” was originally titled “Brandy”), and Goodfellas (the words “in the fucking oven you’ll go” are never spoken, but the implicit threat is there), as well as the best joke ever likely to be occasioned by a Chick-fil-A franchise.
Some of Hill’s provocations are idle ones (for instance, a couple of dull sex jokes regarding Ronnie’s mother) and some of those that have teeth (Brandi’s quasi-date-rape) bite off more than they know what to do with. But the ones that focus on Ronnie’s monomania and inchoate rage fare better, thanks in large part to Rogen’s straight, almost painful performance. Unlike the sloppy softies he’s played in the Apatow oeuvre, Rogen gives Ronnie a perpetual hard-on (more figurative than literal), a toxic combination of sexual anxiety, job frustration, gun-worship, and brittle machismo. When Nell (Collette Wolfe), the Good Girl who works a coffee counter at the mall, tells him not to let anyone laugh at his dreams, he receives her compassion as an insult: “If anything, I laugh at other idiots who are trying to do what they want.”
For a while it seems that Hill may exhume Ronnie’s buried pain and steer this bitter comedy beyond, well, bitter comedy. But like last month’s I Love You Man, Observe and Report scratches at real issues (in this case more sociopathic than romantic) only lightly before retreating to the safety of a conventional conclusion. Indeed, the upbeat ending--which comes on the heels of a genuinely shocking climax--is so incongruous that, as with The King of Comedy, it almost seems we’re being dared to question whether it is real or delusion.
Even beyond Rogen’s funny/scary performance, the cast is a treat. Though Faris isn’t given a great deal to do, she brings real froth to the bubble-headed Brandi. Wolfe, likewise, gives unexpected life to an underwritten character as the virginal (technically, “born-again” virginal) Nell. Pena is marvelous (and all but unrecognizable) as the sweet, lisping, not-at-all-what-he-appears-to-be Dennis. And Liotta, whose acid-faced tough guys have often flirted with camp of late, gets good comic mileage out of playing it straight.
Observe and Report is brutally funny, in the literal sense of the modifier. Unlike, say, Superbad, whose indecencies were underlaid with innocence, there is nothing gentle about Hill’s vision. Which is fine, to a point. But especially when taken alongside his previous film, the slender indie comedy The Foot Fist Way, Observe and Report unsettles in unintended ways as well as the intended ones. (I haven’t yet seen Hill’s HBO series “Eastbound and Down.”) Twice now, Hill has offered us feeble protagonists who undergo sexual humiliation at the hands of blondes teetering between beauty and grotesquery; and twice his heroes have achieved masculine vindication through violence and the humiliation of their ex-lovers in turn--in one case with the ultimate reward being the unconditional love of a more submissive woman. Sometimes such adolescent tropes are merely ironic accoutrements, and sometimes they’re genuinely adolescent. The talented Hill, in other words, is someone worth keeping an eye on, in ways both good and bad.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.