Movie review by Greg Carlson
Critiquing a movie like “Observe and Report,” filmmaker Jody Hill’s follow up to the mildly amusing martial arts comedy “The Foot Fist Way,” is a daunting proposition. Engineered for maximum shock, “Observe and Report” defies its audience to sympathize with any of its reprehensible characters, despite the unfortunate likelihood that many members of its target demographic will not notice that the protagonist is delusional, or that we are not supposed to cheer his always boorish, sometimes criminal, actions.
Moviemaker intent and audience reception sometimes fail to connect – just think of viewers who thought the murderous, tennis white-clad torturers of Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” were cool, or worse, identified with them – but it is hard to believe that Hill and the studio executives and marketers of “Observe and Report” assumed they were delivering a deeply considered meditation on mental illness instead of a willfully messed up goof. There is no doubt that we are meant to laugh at the characters in “Observe and Report,” but too many will be laughing with them.
Seth Rogen, in the riskiest role of his short career, plays mall security guard Ronnie Barnhardt, a gigantic a-hole whose lusty fantasies of wooing equally moronic cosmetics counter jockey Brandi (Anna Faris, simultaneously underutilized and over-abused) practically explode when he finds himself with the opportunity to “protect” her from a creepy trench coat flasher terrorizing the shopping center. Despite the odorous stew of racism, misogyny, and general rudeness that defines Ronnie’s occasionally medicated bipolar sufferer, he has the wherewithal to note that the streaker is probably the best thing that has ever happened to him, since it brings him closer to Brandi.
Hill recently name-checked a variety of popular cultural source material for his twisted vision, including J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” and Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” While “Observe and Report” won’t be mistaken for any of those much, much better, more incisive, more intelligent works, one imagines that Hill’s film has a shot at developing a cult eager to analyze the depths of ugly, unrelenting depravity pumping whatever substance passes for blood through the black heart of the movie. Sympathy for any of the movie’s losers, particularly Ronnie, is fleeting at best, and Hill reinforces Ronnie’s failures so diligently, you leave the cinema feeling like you have been ground beneath the director’s boot heel.
Ultimately, “Observe and Report” is supposed to be a comedy, and even though it has a handful of hilarious scenes, the whole mess is fouled up by its disjointed, stop/start rhythms. Hill has not yet mastered the art of feature film pacing, and too much of “Observe and Report” fails to sustain viewer interest and investment. The movie wallows in many bizarre and macabre scenarios – including a vicious beatdown delivered to a clutch of parking lot skaters, a painful psychological assessment, and an already infamous, vomit-soaked date rape. Many scenes likely happen inside Ronnie’s head, and if they do, Hill refuses to definitively tip his hand one way or the other. The strategy will generate future conversation about the movie, deserving or not.
This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/13/09.