There are times when popular culture seems to be trying very hard to tell us something. Take for instance, this peculiar coincidence: There are several movie theaters in Knoxville where, over the Easter holiday, once could see two different movies about overweight, taser-wielding buffoons protecting America’s malls from evildoers.
What does it mean? What is the zeitgeist trying to tell us? Thankfully I’ve only been forced to see one of the two and so will be unable to plumb the depths of this mystery. But if Observe and Report is any indication, the pop cultural crystal ball bears ill tidings.
Observe and Report, the second of the two mall-cop movies, stars Seth Rogen as Ronnie Barnhardt—a sad-sack, bipolar bully who lives with his alcoholic mother. Ronnie’s the head of security at the Forest Ridge Mall where he and his crew of multi-ethnic stereotypes rule with a spastic iron fist. Like a cadet who did his training at Abu Ghraib, Ronnie metes out his own version of justice while trying to woo the shrill, buxom cosmetics store skeeze Brandi (Anna Faris).
But when a flasher begins terrorizing the mall parking lot, a real detective (Ray Liotta) is called in to solve the crime and Ronnie’s sense of power, not to mention manhood, is challenged.
What follows is a schlocky, picaresque farce in the Farrelly brothers vein but with a surprising undercurrent of anger and darkness. Ronnie tries to become a cop. Ronnie doesn’t realize that the girl who really loves him isn’t the trampy, angry Brandi but the lovable, disabled barista who gives him free coffee. Ronnie savagely beats one of those gangs of drug dealers that exist only to give heroes an ethnically diverse group of bad guys to wail on. Ronnie exchanges racial epithets with an Arabic-looking mall worker. Ronnie and his lisping, Hispanic sidekick take drugs and savagely beat a bunch of skateboarders. Then they do it some more.
There are theoretically some laughs in Observe and Report—the conversations between Ronnie and his continually drunk mother are just weird enough to warrant a chuckle or two. And the almost sensual duel of expletives between Ronnie and his Arabic mall nemesis may be the high point of the film. But overall the extraction of laughter in the movie is a painful and debasing procedure.
At first the neck-snapping tonal shifts—from goofball comedy to bilious nihilism—come across as challenging, even smart. But it quickly becomes clear that director Jody Hill has confused satire with sadism. His interest isn’t in highlighting the (by now quite clichéd) shallowness of mall culture or the sad and broken lives of his characters. Instead Observe and Report comes across like a demonstration of his own cynical cleverness.
But the ultimate failure of Observe and Report isn’t its sadism or perverseness. Instead, the movie is undone by its timidity. Afraid to follow his own ruthless logic, Hill always lets his characters, and his movie, off the hook. The most shameless example of this is Ronnie’s date with Brandi.
After a punishing but funny opener where Brandi tries to quell her disgust with Ronnie by pounding both his clonazepam and tequila, the scene builds to a gross-out, vomit-laden good-night kiss. Fair enough. Then the kicker—cut to Rogen in bed, screwing an apparently passed-out Brandi, who lies slack-jawed on her puke-encrusted pillow. Date rape! Hooray! Now we’re really pushing the envelope! But instead of turning the scene into a sort of nightmarish counterpoint to Rogen’s dubious drunken coupling in Knocked Up, Hill gives us all a little wink when, during a pause in the thrusting, Brandi says, “Why are you stopping?”
Observe and Report does manage to prove a couple of things, though. First, it is possible for Rogen to be unlovable. Sadly, it doesn’t show that he has much else going for him. But if he has to choose between being the goofy fat guy and being an overweight, dumbed-down Travis Bickle, I just hope he makes the right decision.
Director Hill needs to make a similar choice. Because there are moments in Observe and Report where he seems to be trying to get outside the easy, frat-boy humor of Apatow and Co. and into something darker and maybe more interesting. That those moments are universally squandered doesn’t give one much hope, however. On the plus side, I imagine Lord of the Flies will make a terrific comedy. Maybe Seth Rogan can play Piggy.