Observe and Report finally confirms two long-running suspicions I have held about Seth Rogen. One is that there is a continual mean streak to the clueless schlub he constantly plays. The other is that his depth of range to play such a character does not go very far beyond that of an average sketch on SNL. Thus, when he is given considerably darker comedic material to work with, as he is here, he and the filmmakers make us feel squirmy rather than unsettlingly amused.
Now I am not saying that one cannot make a good black comedy about Rogen's one-track mind security guard, Ronnie Barnhardt, whom some have described as Paul Blart: Mall Cop from earlier this year filtered through the mind of Travis Bickle. In fact, a character similar to that of Bickle in Taxi Driver was already seen through morbidly comedic lenses by Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy. But good comedy requires the basis of truth and heart in its backbone and first-time writer/director Jody Hill lacks the skill to connect the laughs with the would-be serious elements of character empathy. Hence, we cringe at some of the supposedly funny elements that are based entirely on shock value and scratch our heads when it tries to take itself seriously with the antihero's bipolar disorder.
We first meet Ronnie Barnhardt as he takes his job as head of security at a shopping mall very, very seriously. A flasher has been on the loose in the parking lot and when he ends up harassing Ronnie's long-time crush, Brandi (Anna Faris), who works at a cosmetic stand at a mall, Ronnie makes it his personal mission to find this flasher. The mall's CEO, Mark (Dan Bakkedahl), however, does not really trust Ronnie and since it is a criminal matter, he calls in Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta) to handle the case. But then when a store robbery takes place during the mall's closing hours, Ronnie, who has had dreams of being a real police officer, recruits his own “task force” consisting of his right-hand man, Dennis (Michael Peňa) and Asian twins, John and Matt Yuen (John and Matt Yuan). There is also Nell (Collette Wolfe), a coffee and donut shop worker who gets mocked by her fellow employees for merely being a little immobile due to a cast around her leg.
There are some funny one-liners here and there in these opening scenes but one-liners are all they are and they can already be found in the red-band trailer. Moreover, there is instantly a snaky, nasty streak that grows in Rogen's character as he cruises around “investigating” but really just picking on minority concession stand owners such as the rather tastelessly named Saddamn (Aziz Ansari). The latter results in a big, unimaginative cursing match that just goes on and on and on. Then there is a gaping misogynistic hole that the movie never recovers from when Ronnie forces Brandi to a date, watches her get drunk to the point of throwing up and commits what is essentially date rape, which is supposed to be outrageously funny and endearing because he says, “I accept you” and kisses her after she vomits. Anna Faris has gone on interviews to say that she thought this scene would never make the final cut and I think this scene should work as an acid test for the ladies unfortunate enough to see this as a date movie: If the guy is laughing at this scene, date the guy no more.
Then, about a third of the way through, the movie abruptly shifts to try to introduce the more serious elements in Rogen's character to try to explain his sociopath behavior and this is where it just about breaks into two. Just like drama, comedy, especially when it turns dark, requires a realistic entry point at its root and the only way we can care about this one-track minded guy with bipolar disorder is to treat it with at least a smidgen of gravitas. This, of course, puts the movie entirely on Seth Rogen's shoulders and this is where he is way behind his fellow comedic actors like Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler or even Will Ferrell in properly playing up enough drama to even be darkly comedic (which is probably why even in Knocked Up, his character's supposed transformation to end up with Katherine Heigl was frivolously rushed with a mere five-minute montage). When we see him strutting around with a squint and maybe a few tears, there is a flippant clownishness that he wears like an obnoxious funny hat he refuses to take off. Because he never takes his own role seriously, we cannot either and it is just as much Hill's fault that he cannot properly gauge in his star how much he wants his character to be mocked or embraced.
I know that some may think that I am just being high-minded and prudish but vulgarity and political rudeness are not necessarily what I am complaining about. I am complaining about the simple lack of an actual approach from director Hill in dealing with this kind of material. He thinks that pushing as far as he can go in terms of political incorrectness and crudeness will be enough to get the laughs. But as I have said before, shock humor is the easiest, knee-jerk way to try to get a laugh. It takes real wit and a conviction in the situation to redeem it for catharsis. Think of some of the dark British comedies like Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead that alternate tones with ease and the key is that they manage to create a fully realized and somehow believable absurdity within their scenarios rather than having the characters just performing and spouting out cheap and inane vulgarities. Without a consistent credibility in character or situation, you have a movie that is uneven and tone-deaf.
The dearth of overall inspiration extends to the casting as well. Besides Rogen who seems either unwilling or unable to take himself seriously enough to just dive into his character, most everyone else seems predictably and lazily typecast. Ray Liotta's hard-boiled cop ready to pop act is awfully trite by now and Anna Faris is once again playing up the overdone clueless blond stereotype from past movies that is rendered far worse here by the aforementioned horribly demeaning aspects in her character. Michael Peňa does extract precious few laughs with some exaggerated glances trying to look cool although not enough to move past being a comic caricature while John and Matt Yuan just seem to be there to be the token Asian twins as they are really given absolutely nothing to do except to be the butt of Rogen's silly line, “You are my infantry. If one of you dies, I still have another.” And what is a nice girl like the one played by Collette Wolfe doing in this movie? She seems transplanted from another movie that gives the mean-spirited protagonist some undeservedly sappy scenes where she inexplicably falls for him simply because he is the protagonist.
As for Rogen, I do not know. With every successive movie he headlines from Knocked Up, Pineapple Express, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno, there simply grows an indignation inside me about how this guy is not cut out to be a comic leading man (his only decent role for me was a supporting one in the still very funny The 40-Year-Old Virgin with Steve Carell). Now putting him in the muddier material of Observe and Report clarifies for me why. Moreover, he also seems stuck in his own world where he plays roles where he can continually get away with acting like the juvenile teens in Superbad and as jerky and objectifying towards everyone around him, particularly women, under the veil of comedy. I do not mind dark, vulgar or raunchy comedies in and of themselves because I believe that comedy can redeem most anything, but even as a guy, I get increasingly bothered by Rogen's characters and would like to tell him to finally get out of his basement, grow up, and learn some manners within his movies before he can pick up the actual refined tools for cathartic comedy. And you know what? Even Kevin James as Paul Blart: Mall Cop, for all its various silly inanities, is way ahead of him.