Seth Rogen Takes Charge, and We Get to Laugh

Warner Bros. Pictures

City Pulse | April 6, 2009
Writer/director Jody Hill makes a quantum leap from his low-budget 2006 debut feature The Foot Fist Way with a hilarious subversive black comedy about America's post-911 culture of authority-abusing misfits, commonly referred to as security guards. Seth Rogen plays Ronnie Barnhardt, a racist, sociopath security guard who's far more Travis Bickle than Paul Blart. Ronnie is the bipolar head of security at the Forest Ridge Mall, where a trench coat-wearing flasher accosts the object of Ronnie's wrongheaded affection, a vapid make-up counter girl named Brandi (brilliantly played by Anna Farris). The arrival of local no-nonsense police detective Harrison (Ray Liotta) on the case threatens Ronnie's ego to the point that he applies to become a police officer. The film's title spells out in no uncertain terms the limits of authority for security guards obsessed with checking your bag and wanding your body at public entryways. The film is a take-no-prisoners satire that rises to the level of Martin Scorsese's 1982 milestone The King of Comedy. The audience is continuously kept off balance by Jody Hill's unconventional use of slapstick humor offset by straight-to-the-heart dialogue and over-the-top plotting. Seth Rogen's performance is beyond perfect, and supporting efforts by Ray Liotta, Celia Weston, and Michael Pena are spot-on.

The amount of pent-up social fury that Jody Hill unleashes on his audience is staggering. Ronnie's mother (Celia Weston) is a trashy alcoholic who, up until a few years ago, slept with her son's friends -- not out of spite but rather sheer inanity. Oblivious to her son's mental deficiencies, she blindly encourages his every whim -- like his erroneous idea to become a police officer. For a moment, the film seems like it might go the way of David Ayer's Harsh Times, and put a real badge on Ronnie's self-destructive combination of protagonist and antagonist; it doesn't. In the dynamically split character of Ronnie, Rogen and Hill conspire to satirize modern America's overprotective culture that treats skateboarders with tasers and here much harsher physical punishments, while missing the mark completely on things like grand larcenies going on in the mall.

Ronnie lives in a testosterone-fueled bubble of self-entitled empowerment. He's the school guard bully who sees himself as the line between good and bad simply because he wears a uniform. Never mind that Ronnie ruthlessly taunts a Middle-Eastern sales clerk unfortunately named Saddamn (hilariously played by Aziz Ansari). Ronnie has authority and he's going to push it as far as it will go. A regular at the firing range, along with his subordinate security guards Dennis (Michael Pena) and twins John and Matt (played by John and Matthew Yuan), Ronnie is a sharp shooter with a semi-automatic who dreams of carrying a gun on the job.

The genius of the piece is the way the filmmaker pulls you into Ronnie's character -- he just wants to be loved -- and then pushes the audience away with Ronnie's repellent behavior. That there are no likable characters in the story, save for Nell (Collette Wolfe) a "born-again-virgin," adds to a real sense of mall social miasma where Ronnie earns likability points for at least having some personality, even if that persona is completely deranged. If truth lies in reflection, then it's in Brandi where we discover how eternally damned Ronnie truly is. Like Jodie Foster's character in Taxi Driver, Brandi is an ethical blank slate. She's as close to being a walking, talking female automaton as you can imagine. When Ronnie finally wrangles her into going to dinner with him -- she refuses to call it a "date," -- she cashes in on his dime to drink her way into oblivion while he lovingly gazes upon her as if she were Venus incarnate. The sex that follows finds Brandi barely conscious with a puddle of vomit on the pillow. It's a harsh quality of intimacy informed by Ronnie's relationship with his mother that fulfills his romantic fantasy better than he could have hoped.

Observe and Report is a laugh-'till-it-hurts comedy that sticks with you for all of the troubling questions it raises about our society. Just as Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy skewered the revenge mentality of the '70s, and the '80s cult-of-personality, Observe and Report takes a tally of the trust that we put in low level authority figures. One thing is for sure, the mall is not a safe place.

(Warner Brothers) Rated R. 86 mins. (A+)
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