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Observe and Report (2009) Print E-mail
Monday, 13 April 2009
ImageStudio marketing fails once again. No, I’m not talking about the Wolverine workprint being leaked (although you know someone at Fox is most likely washing windows right now because of that), but of the trailers for Observe and Report. Made to look like yet another Apatow-esque comedy, the film is anything but. In fact, a part of me hesitates to call it a comedy at all. It has its funny moments, to be sure, but it’s more an ode to darkly psychological films such as Taxi Driver and Oldboy.

Seth Rogen stars as Ronnie Barnhardt, head of security at a suburban shopping center. As the film opens, a flasher has begun harassing the denizens of the mall, and Ronnie aims to catch the guy. He’s especially concerned for the safety of Brandi (Anna Farris), with whom he is hopelessly infatuated, even though she won’t give him the time of day. His worst fears come true when the flasher accosts Brandi, prompting the mall manager to call in Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta). Angry that his role has been minimized, Ronnie, with the support of temporarily disabled coffee vendor Nell (Collette Wolfe), decides to vie for acceptance in the police academy. At the same time, he uses the flasher incident to get close to Brandi, in the hopes of starting a relationship.
Writer/Director Jody Hill (The Foot Fist Way, Eastbound & Down) loves to scour the minds of the mediocre, finding the most desperate and pathetic to use in his movies. Prior to Observe and Report, his partner in crime was Danny McBride (who does make a small cameo), a man perfect at playing the buffoon for Hill’s cameras. This time around, it’s Seth Rogen, better known for his laid back stoner roles. Rogen really stepped up to the plate, turning Ronnie into an ultra-pathetic Travis Bickle for the new century. The difference is that in Taxi Driver, we saw Travis’ delusions of grandeur and were shocked. Here, we can only laugh.

Rogen is supported by an interesting mix of actors. Ray Liotta plays the cop who has to deal with Ronnie’s ineptitude, and does so with aplomb. He’s a worthy foil for Ronnie, someone you can love to hate, even though he’s in the right. I usually cannot stand Anna Farris, who I find neither funny nor attractive. Luckily, this part seems to have been tailor made for her, as a bubble-headed, superficial slut who is subjected to several indignities. There are a few cameos, such as Patton Oswalt and the aforementioned Mr. McBride, both of whom appear in memorable scenes that involve gratuitous violence. But the real surprise of the cast is Collette Wolfe as Nell, a sweet-natured and sensible coffee clerk who can’t help but take a liking to Ronnie.

Now, as funny as the trailers may have made Observe and Report look, this is not your mother’s brand of comedy. This is a dark, dark film. All of the characters (except, again, Nell) are reprehensible in some form or fashion. Ronnie is pathetically deluded, puffing himself up with self-importance. His mother, with whom he lives, is a raging alcoholic. Detective Harrison isn’t much better, constantly making fun of Ronnie and even putting his life in danger. Brandi is, as mentioned, a bubble-headed slut, and just about everyone does something awful. It is funny, but the humor is awkward and uncomfortable. And it’s not the genial sort of awkwardness that Steve Carell exhibits in The 40 Year Old Virgin and The Office. This is the kind of awkwardness that makes you want to slink out of the theater unnoticed. That being said, this is clearly what Hill was aiming for, and it should feel familiar by now to fans of The Foot Fist Way and Eastbound & Down.

The film, while very good, isn’t perfect. For one thing, Hill seems utterly unable to pick music that matches the picture and stick with it. The soundtrack, consisting almost entirely of found songs, jumps from clip to clip to clip, unable to settle on one particular groove. It gives the picture a schizophrenic tone that I don’t think was intended. The movie also lacks focus. Hill lets things drift, throwing in things that really don’t matter, giving the picture a lackadaisical feel that is at odds with the subject manner. On the other hand, Hill tightens things up for the third act, which really has some fantastic sequences, including an ode to Oldboy that will have many questioning whether or not they can suspend their disbelief to that degree. The ending makes the endeavor worth it, though.

While flawed, Observe and Report is clearly part of Hill’s singular vision, the capper to a trilogy of projects that push mediocrity’s self delusions to the forefront. I’m curious to see where he goes next, because if it’s anything as darkly comic as Observe and Report, I will be there.

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