The Band’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece” plays during the opening sequence of Jody Hill’s new black comedy, Observe and Report, set to panning photography of a suburban mall intercut with close-up profile shots of Seth Rogen’s dedicated mall cop, Ronnie Barnhardt. As in the classic opening sequence of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, the visual aesthetic establishes Ronnie’s territorial attitude toward his mundane job. But the song is important too: the first of many ’70s-era classic rock jams that play throughout Hill’s twisted character study, often set to heroic and imagined montages of Ronnie’s ironically unlawful actions. It’s Hill’s genuine affection and even sympathy for this mentally-unstable misfit that gives Observe and Report a gravity few films of its kind can muster. Every scene escalates to inevitable confrontation, and it’s Hill’s ability to make us care for his nutcase that transcends the film’s vulgarity and violence.
Ronnie lives at home with his alcoholic mother; his father left around the time he was born, unable to cope with his son’s “special needs.” He’s the head of security at a local mall, and it’s a position he understandably takes very seriously. Aside from routinely courting make-up counter bimbo Brandi (Anna Faris), there’s little to distract Ronnie from his duties, and when reports surface of a serial flasher, he resolves to catch the offender. Real Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta) is officially assigned to the case, but does little to deter Ronnie’s efforts, and when Brandi is “targeted” by the flasher, Ronnie’s obsession with nailing him is only emboldened. With assistance from right-hand-man Dennis (a hilarious, lisping Michael Peña), a couple of “expendable” Asian twins, and a rookie security guard, Ronnie assembles a “task force” to take down his pervert. Along the way, Hill’s Apatow-ian man-child unsuccessfully attempts to become a real cop, learns the truth about a close friend, and finds out his crush is cheating on him. But because we get the sense that Ronnie has never experienced any such disappointments before, these unremarkable realizations play out in a way that seems abnormally weighty. Ronnie tries to be be better than what he is, better than what he’s been content being, and inadvertently unveils the farce of his own delusions of grandeur.
This director means to provoke, as evidenced in sequences of brutal violence, blatant racism and drunken-induced date rape — all acts committed by Ronnie. In Taxi Driver, Scorsese’s Travis Bickle is the product of the Vietnam War, a ticking bomb of violent urges and disgusted hate. In contrast, Hill’s Ronnie is in some ways the product of movies like Taxi Driver and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, and the director swipes the latter film’s slow-motion, bad-ass posturing, approximating it here, but with new meaning: this is how Ronnie sees himself and his cohorts, and Hill wisely allows no other characters such visual accompaniment. This makes many of the seemingly flamboyant aesthetic choices, such as use of the montage, more appropriate, as Hill envisions them as character devices rather than stylistics. Rogen, who’s mere existence in a film as of late has suggested banality, with seemingly endless comedic roles for the Judd Apatow machine that can only kindly be described as slight variations on the same character, here proves he’s up to the challenge of doing something more with himself. Seemingly asked to play a modern day Bickle — or, more accurately, one who believes himself to be a tough guy but clearly lacks the physicality and know-how — Rogen delivers a believable intensity, deviating from the likable stoner of films like Pineapple Express and Knocked Up, but harnessing enough of his schlubby persona to suit his character in Observe and Report. The actor’s chummy grins are present, but they mean more here, often masking insecurity or anger, and when Rogen needs to buckle down and get serious, as when Ronnie’s house-of-cards emotional state calls for release, the actor’s explosive outbursts possess enough shock value to keep them from feeling gimmicky. (This isn’t Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison, or any other Adam Sandler tantrum comedy, after all.)
Since Hill’s film is something of a character study, it’s to Rogen’s great credit that we almost entirely buy into Ronnie’s mental state: He’s bipolar, racist, misogynist, violent, and a mama’s boy. As such, Ronnie believes what his mother tells him, that he’s a “great man,” and if Hill doesn’t buy it (the director is smart enough not to excuse his character’s bad behavior), he at least makes us understand that Ronnie acts with his id, and because he thinks what he’s doing is right. This all sounds pretty heavy, I’m sure, but another strength of Hill’s film is its comedy. The effectiveness of Observe and Report as anything more than mere amusement is surely debatable, but anyone who can appreciate the inherent comedy of embarrassing behavior should find this film appropriately uproarious, on par for laughs with the myriad of titles Apatow has written, co-written, directed or produced over the past few years. Unlike that comedy icon’s increasingly tiresome creations, however, Hill’s screenplay gives minor characters (Faris’s Brandi, Liotta’s Harrison) enough screen time to make an impression without reducing them to side-show attractions that hang around the periphery of the frame cracking jokes– think all the extraneous, cameo-like appearances in last year’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall. And clocking in at a palatable 86 minutes, Observe and Report is free of the many pacing problems that have hampered the success of so many comedies as of late– allow me to remind that the critically beloved Knocked Up is a patience-testing two hours and 13 minutes.
Not everything in Observe and Report completely works, and there’s one sequence, wherein Ronnie and Peña’s Dennis partake in excessive drug use, seemingly contradicting Ronnie’s steadfast dedication to upholding the law — emphasized just one scene later, when the character takes great offense to acts of thievery — that registers as a misstep. But of all the many American comedies released in the past few years, this one strikes me as one of the best, ranking with last year’s Michel Gondry film, Be Kind Rewind, for consistency and ambition. Both have received little critical acclaim and seem destined to be misunderstood, for whatever reason, but I’ll take their genre-elevating visions of comedy over most any Apatow flick (as good as those sometimes are). There’s hardly an offensive moment in Observe and Report that isn’t earned and, save the aforementioned plot diversion and a head-scratchingly bland title, the film has few noticeable flaws. Virtually every mistake it does make can be overlooked considering that Jody Hill is clearly aspiring to do something special with his second film (a marked improvement over his first, The Foot Fist Way). As the opening sequence slyly posits, Hill may be just trying to paint his masterpiece. For a comedy, such ambition is more than praise-worthy.