Writer/director Jody Hill makes a quantum leap from his low-budget 2006 debut The Foot Fist Way with a hilarious, subversive black comedy about America’s post-911 culture of authority-abusing misfits, commonly referred to as security guards.
Seth Rogen plays Ronnie Barnhardt, a racist, sociopathic security guard who is far more Travis Bickle than Paul Blart. Ronnie is the bipolar head of security at the Forest Ridge Mall, where a trench-coat-wearing flasher accosts the object of Ronnie’s wrongheaded affection, a vapid make-up counter girl named Brandi (brilliantly played by Anna Farris). The arrival of local, no-nonsense police detective Harrison (Ray Liotta) on the case threatens Ronnie’s ego to the point that he applies to become a police officer. The film’s title spells out in no uncertain terms the limits of authority for security guards obsessed with checking your bag and wanding your body at public entryways.
Observe and Report is a take-no-prisoners satire that rises to the level of Martin Scorsese's 1982 milestone The King of Comedy. Rogen’s performance is beyond perfect, and supporting efforts by Liotta, Celia Weston and Michael Pena are spot-on.
The audience is continuously kept off balance by Hill’s unconventional use of slapstick humor, straight-to-the-heart dialogue and over-the-top plotting.
The amount of pent-up social fury that Hill unleashes on his audience is staggering. Ronnie's mother (Weston) is a trashy alcoholic who, up until a few years ago, slept with her son's friends — not out of spite but rather sheer inanity. Oblivious to her son’s mental deficiencies, she blindly encourages his every whim — like his erroneous idea to become a police officer.
Ronnie lives in a testosterone-fueled bubble of self-entitled empowerment. He’s a bully who sees himself as the line between good and bad simply because he wears a uniform. Never mind that Ronnie ruthlessly taunts a Middle-Eastern sales clerk unfortunately named Saddamn (hilariously played by Aziz Ansari). A regular at the firing range, along with his subordinate security guards Dennis (Pena) and twins John and Matt (John and Matthew Yuan), Ronnie is a sharp shooter with a semi-automatic who dreams of carrying a gun on the job.
The genius of the piece is the way the filmmaker pulls you into Ronnie's character — he just wants to be loved — and then pushes the audience away with Ronnie's repellent behavior. That there are no likable characters in the story — save for Nell (Collette Wolfe), a “born-again virgin” — adds to a real sense of mall social miasma where Ronnie earns likability points for at least having some personality, even if that persona is completely deranged.
Observe and Report is a laugh-’til-it-hurts comedy that sticks with you for all of the troubling questions it raises about our society. Just as Taxi Driver skewered the revenge mentality of the 1970s and The King of Comedy the celebrity-obsessed 1980s, Observe and Report takes a tally of the trust that we put in low-level authority figures. One thing is for sure: The mall is not a safe place. Grade: A
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