There is one scene in Observe and Report that perfectly describes the rest of the movie. Seth Rogen’s security guard character is blasting paper human targets at a shooting range. He blows away not just the heads, but the rest of the body too. Similarly, the picture’s director Jody Hill insists on incapacitating his film before delivering the kill shot.
When a serial flasher stalks a shopping mall, not-too-bright head of security Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) rolls into action. By catching the pervert, he hopes to wow a hideously snooty makeup lady (Anna Faris) into dating him, but the real cop (Ray Liotta) investigating the attacks doesn't care about Ronnie's “leads.” Forget any comparisons to Paul Blart: Mall Cop, this film plays more like Taxi Driver meets Death Wish.
About the only thing propping up this film is Seth Rogen’s surprising performance. Crawling inside Ronnie’s brain-damaged head, Rogen restrains his trademark belly laugh. When it happens it’s actually kind of scary. But due to a cramped 90-minute running time he’s often forced to behave cartoonishly. When he's given a little breathing room, Rogen shines in scenes with Collette Wolfe as a handicapped waitress. The way he responds unusually to her kindness conveys mental illness without winking at the audience.
What’s wrong with Observe and Report stems from its writer/director who rushes through his character development. Jody Hill is more interested in seeing how quickly we can have Ronnie beating the crap out of people. I’m all for slow-motion close-ups of a dude getting clocked in the face — you definitely need to grab an audience’s attention early — but isn’t a scene where a store owner states he has a restraining order on the hero a little obvious? A few of the more intense scenes still manage to be effective though. One memorable episode has Danny McBride appearing as a threatening crack dealer with his son’s face tattooed across his chest. Having been used for laughs lately, McBride excels here in a more serious role.
Supposedly, Observe and Report is a Taxi Driver parody but it’s really more like an homage with unnecessary jokes. After a decent job building a dark and serious tone, you wonder why Hill veers suddenly from dramatic to absurd even within the same scene. Admittedly, one such moment comes off equally funny and disturbing when Ronnie and his buddies fire very illegal looking weapons at a gun club; furious editing accentuates the increasing size and power of the arms they’re wielding to ridiculous extremes. But frankly, the plot’s too dismal to giggle at.
If they wanted to pursue more complex roles, I don’t know why Rogen and Faris chose to star in a Jody Hill movie. Along with Ray Liotta, their presence makes Observe and Report absurdly fascinating for a little while. What a waste! Hill needs someone else to direct his stories. What could have been a spin on Taxi Driver is just a nonsensical bunch of gags and shocks. His jarring shifts in tone serve no purpose but to mess with the audience.