Observe and Report
It’s somewhat tough to describe the tingle of anticipation we felt as we entered this screening of Observe and Report having hungrily consumed the online buzz surrounding it. “Quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen,” said one source. “A dark and delirious blend of comedy and violence,” said another. Imagine how we felt then after about twenty minutes as we slowly realized that what we were witnessing was not the birth of comedy not as we know it, but the death of writer/director Jody Hill’s big studio career.
You can certainly see what Hill was aiming at. After all, in the post-Will Ferrell era the idea of another comedy centered around an inept egotist with a massively inflated and yet entirely unjustified sense of self-worth might strike you as so far, so formula. But as Hill demonstrated with his breakout debut The Foot Fist Way, he has a propensity to push the envelope, displaying a penchant for offering up brutality as belly laughs. Danny McBride playing a martial arts instructor who can’t control his temper can get away with that because he’s clearly a harmless buffoon who, when challenged, will cower. Seth Rogen playing a bullish bi-polar case who is off his meds simply cannot.
Angry and given to fits of paranoid delusion, head of mall security Ronnie Barnhardt is the lord and master of all he surveys; even if that translates to shoplifters, old people power-walking and fatties congregating around the ice cream fountain. When a serial flasher invades his domain, Ronnie seizes his chance to show off his law enforcement skills to Detective Harrison (a decidedly unimpressed Ray Liotta) and make-up counter girl of his dreams Brandi (Anna Faris showing why she is one of comedy’s brightest stars). Mustering his troops in the form of sycophantic lieutenant Dennis (Michael Pena) and gun nuts John and Matt (the Yuan twins) Ronnie sets about restoring order with an iron fist (typically aimed at someone’s face). And that’s the problem.
Violence in and of itself – even that which occurs on screen – is not funny. Rather it’s down to the director to make it funny, and Jody Hill’s lack of stylistic smarts combined with Rogen’s misguided decision to play it absolutely straight offer the viewer no reality buffer zone to relax into. Given authority, shown to be more than capable of handling himself physically and shot in unrelenting close-up by Hill, Rogen’s Ronnie actually comes over as genuinely threatening, leaving the audience unsure how to react which is a catastrophic misstep for any comedy.
Hill’s leave-well-alone strategy invites us to watch Ronnie fail to achieve his aspiration of joining the police force (on psychological grounds) and, now off his meds thanks to a brief one-nighter with Brandi that’s tantamount to a date rape gag, slip further and further away from reality. The Taxi Driver comparisons are fair, and that’s clearly what Rogen is shooting for gleefully blowing away paper targets on the range combined with a grim voiceover declaring his intention to purge the mall of the human sewage that’s seeping into it. But at no point does Hill offer any indication, either through the script or his flat, functional direction, as to why any of this is supposed to be funny. Rather he simply presents Ronnie engaging in a slew of ultra-violent antics and simply expects us to laugh at them. Well, sorry, we need more than that.
It wouldn’t be so bad if all this was in service to the story, but in fact it’s the shockingly OTT smackdowns that prevent any real story that we can get invested in from emerging. We’re expected to believe that not only would Det. Harrison tolerate Ronnie for even a second, but that he would actively seek to place him in harms way, dropping him off with some tooled up crackheads, just to make a point. Or that Ronnie would still be walking around free after getting into a Matrix Reloaded style face-off with two-dozen police officers. The violence not only serves no comedic purpose, it actively prevents a narrative.
At one point Det. Harrison calls Ronnie into his office so he can delight in informing him that he flunked the police entrance exam, while his partner elects to hide in the closet to listen in on the giggle. As Harrison is midswing into bringing the hammer down on Ronnie’s dreams and his eyes begin to glass, Harrison’s partner reemerges declaring: “You know what, I thought this was going to be funny, but it’s actually just kind of sad,” and skulks out of the room a little bit ashamed of himself. And in doing so unknowingly just about sums up Observe and Report.
Starring: Seth Rogen, Ray Liotta, Anna Farris, Jesse Plemons, Michael Pena
Director: Jody Hill
Runtime: 86 Minutes
Distributor: Warner Bros.