Monday, April 20, 2009

Review: "Observe and Report" (2009)

"Observe and Report"

* * 1/2 / * * * *

D: Jody Hill
W: Jody Hill
S: Seth Rogen

            Seth Rogen plays a different kind of law enforcer in director Jody Hill’s new film, “Observe and Report.”  Rogen, who has assimilated a comfortable resume playing variations on his warm but juvenile everyman, daringly inverts his persona in this hard-hitting comedy that has far more under the surface than childish antics.

            Ronnie Barnhardt (Rogen) is the admittedly bi-polar head of mall security with delusions of grandeur. He nurses his supportive but alcoholic mother (Celia Watson, in a terrific supporting turn both hilarious and surprisingly heartfelt) and failingly tries to win the heart of cosmetics worker Brandi (Anna Faris, once again capitalizing on her innate ability to play any kind of bimbo), who won’t give Ronnie the time of day.

            But when a flasher starts terrorizing the mall’s parking lot, Ronnie sees it as a chance to finally make a name for himself.  Too bad the manager calls in police detective Harrison (Ray Liotta, chewing scenery as best he can) to take the case away from Ronnie.

            In its first act, there’s nothing very special about “Observe and Report.”  Hill’s filmmaking is capable if devoid of a distinguishable style.  All the actors outlandishly delve into the misanthropic scum ball material, and Rogen builds Ronnie into an occasionally charming, misunderstood underdog.

            It’s generic, with the same kind of affectionate losers and rambling humor that’s charted more than a handful of recent R-rated comedies.

            Then, halfway through the film, Ronnie decides to go off his bi-polar medication.  Suddenly, the movie stops its silliness and starts becoming provocatively dark.  As he goes off the deep end, beating skateboarders and utilizing his tazer, he submerges into a violent anti-hero.

            With bizarre monologues caught somewhere between Batman and “Taxi Driver,” Ronnie Barnhardt’s cold cry of “the world needs a hero” becomes both pathetic and disturbing.

            In a movie culture where individualist superheroes have dominated the popular imagination, not to mention the box office, “Observe and Report” is daring enough to attack that image, twisting the renegade outsider into a violent and mentally unhinged person, bluntly wondering if it’s remotely possible to root for Ronnie after a certain point.

            It’s in this final act that director Hill creates complexity.  By undercutting so much of the bizarre humor with sharp violence, Hill is trying to force his audience to assess their laughter and wonder if and when the line between humor and masochism was crossed.

            The humor lurches out of a dark psychological recess, pulled increasingly to the fore by a simultaneous attraction and repulsion to the violence.

            Gradually stripping its sympathy and exposing its dark side, “Observe and Report” actually provides a deeply subversive commentary on popular culture.

            There are some particular moments – the resolution of an awkward date with Brandi, the film’s overlong, slow-motion climax – that are borderline brilliant, stretching their jokes in directions that breed unease before coercing nervous laughter.

            The trick doesn’t always work, but Rogen is brave enough to toy with his own image and use it to create and unexpectedly demented character sketch.  Though simplistic, “Observe and Report” is dark-hearted and daring comedy.

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