Observe and Report suffers from false advertising. The studio has pushed it as a broadly appealing, silly and ridiculous romp involving comedy's hottest ticket of the minute, Seth Rogen. But the broad comedy moments are few and far between, and in less than ten minutes the movie reveals itself as a weird attempt at a dark comedy that only at first appears to be something different. And it doesn't work.
Rogen plays Ronnie Barnhardt, a mall security guard (actually Head of Security) committed to justice who is forced into action when a perverted flasher starts to cause havoc in the mall. With the help of his other security guards and an unwanted, imposing police officer (Ray Liotta), he makes it his mission to apprehend the flasher, all the while trying to win the heart of cosmetic booth employee Brandi (Anna Faris).
Seth Rogen has always worked best in small-ish supporting roles rather than being the lead. It is there where his comedy works best, when he has other leading men (whether it be Steve Carell in The 40 Year Old Virgin or Jonah Hill and Michael Cera in Superbad) to play off of, coming in with comedic jabs at just the right times and in small doses. However, of late he's been given leading roles, and I'm sorry to say he doesn't quite fit. The benefit of the doubt was his in Knocked Up, simply because it was his first lead role, but it has become clear with Zack and Miri Make A Porno, and now this, that he isn't suited to leading a film.
Now that's not to say Rogen isn't a talented comedic actor, because he is. He certainly has a sweet charisma about him that allows him to remain likable while swearing profusely or acting like a complete idiot. But it seems that with Observe and Report, written by The Foot Fist Way writer/director Jody Hill, Rogen is on a mission to go against type. This isn't the lovable oaf we all know and love; this is a foul-mouthed, angry, obsessive and quite troubled character who is not all that likable in the end; maybe he's the kind of guy whom you would want to hang out with for a little while, but who becomes irritating and intrusive if it's any longer than that. Rogen wasn't the right guy for this role; I'm all for going against type, but it fails here.
Observe and Report is a strange comedy beast, indeed. In fact it's so strangely different from what you might expect that I guess on that front it can be given a degree of respect; not being like every other comedy that's out there can only be a good thing, right? Well, yes and no. It's refreshing in the sense that we haven't seen this kind of thing in a widely released, presumably mainstream comedy, and that should be appreciated.
But what the film is at its core — a peculiar, dark comedy disguised as a broad one — doesn't work on the levels that were intended. There are only moments here and there of the expected pure silliness; most of the time it resorts to strange social commentary on human ethics, dark humor involving violence (among other things), strong language just for the sake of it, and plain unfunny naked-guy jokes.
Hill is clearly trying to do something different with the popular mainstream comedy genre. But with its dark humor it just comes off as miffing and very odd. It's often confusing in that you don't know whether you should be laughing or not, whether the scene at hand is serious or not, whether the jokes are morally sound or not. A lot of the time you're too busy trying to work out the nature of what's taking place to be taken in by any humor that might be present. There were one or two moderate laughs, a few chuckles, and some grins, but for the most part the movie just ain't funny. Sometimes the comedy is confusing, other times it so trite and obvious that it can be seen from a mile away and thus the laugh factor is immediately diminished if not eradicated altogether.
The supporting performances are where most of the few laughs are to be found. Not all of the supporting players work — we've seen Michael Pena's and Anna Faris's type of characters done before, only better — but some do boost the film a little. Ray Liotta finally gets to do the intense shouting thing we've seen many times before, only this time in a comedic movie, where the schtick works a treat in contrast to the stuff going on around him. John and Matt Yuan are great as the "dispensable" twin security guards, and Danny McBride is a highlight as a gun-totin' gang member.
With any comedy the single most important factor is that it should be funny. However it achieves that — even if it has a bad story, bad editing, bad music, or bad acting — as long as it's funny all that other stuff can be forgiven. Observe and Report is funny only in flashes. And that shouldn't have been, particularly with a premise that had such potential for golden comedic moments, and with Rogen on board. Oh, what a missed opportunity… what a disappointment.