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Thursday, April 09, 2009

Movie Review: Observe and Report

Full disclosure: I've spent the last few months anticipating this movie. I've laughed at the red-band trailer that popped up online not too far back and not exactly grown bored with the oft-aired ads for the film on TV. I've eagerly absorbed interviews with writer/director Jody Hill touting the film as a spiritual successor to "Taxi Driver" in its dark misanthropy. I've even followed the trajectory of the "Seth Rogen: Fat No More" with interest because of this movie.

So now it's here and there's no way that expectation could meet experience, right? Well, yes and no. See, while on the final balance I enjoyed "Observe and Report," it wasn't the movie I went in hoping for, and more problematic still, it wasn't sure what movie it wanted to be.

The story is that of Ronnie Barhardt (Rogen), head of mall security at an unnamed Southern California mall. Ronnie has established a something of a fiefdom there, aided and abetted by his lieutenant, the sycophantic Dennis (Michael Pena) and the weapons-obsessed Yuen twins (John and Matt Yuan). He's even browbeaten an employee at the local seafood restaurant (Jesse Plemons) into following the path of the mall security guard, which for Ronnie's purposes entails a campaign of harrassment and decidedly unmeasured responses to vandalism and cars parked in loading zones.

Ronnie's control of his environment is shattered when a flasher begins harrassing female patrons, most notably Ronnie's crush, the vapid, drunken Brandi (Anna Faris). The flasher brinsg the police (in the form of Ray Liotta's Detective Harrison) and the presence of the police creates a loss of control in Ronnie's environment. He attempts to seize the reins of the situation by using the threat of the return of the "pervert" to harrass Brandi into going out with him and to ultimately get himself onto the police force.

Some of you may know be able to guess the trajectory from here: how there's another, gentler blonde competing for Ronnie's affections one free cup of coffee in the food court at a time; how Detective Harrison and the world in general show Ronnie what a joke his ambitions truly are; the bloddy -

Well, wait a minute. Now what I've described above has the marks of the typical "clueless hero" arc where our protagonist is redeemed in the end by an act of competence. And "Observe and Report" is, in fact, that. But there is a streak of meanness to it - of misanthropy that makes it more a spiritual successor to "Bad Santa" than to Taxi driver. This is not a strike against the movie since I think "Bad Santa" is one of the truly great dark comedies.

Ronnie is an appropriately foul-mouthed, violent, xenophobic, and petty hero convinced of his own invincibility within the confines of the mall, and those moments where the character's ambition is allowed to outsize the moment are great (specifically any scenes between Rogen and Liotta). Where the movie falters is in how true Ronnie's belief in his own invincibility is. For all of his faults as a person, Jody Hill has allowed Barnhadt to be a force fo nature in a fight and in command of his troops (with one exception I won't spoil here).

There's violence in the film (generally Ronnie is the one who causes it) but it becomes cartoonish after a point in how capable Ronnie is. The tone seems off and you're thrown into the middle of an action movie where your character-based comedy was supposed to be. Additionally, where there's supposed to be heart, there's a layer of broad schmaltz that can be disorienting. When Ronnie fails, it's funny - often very funny - but in the aftermath Hill lingers over his interactions with his drunken mother (Celia Weston) whose heart-to-hears have the setup and delivery of something out of a sitcom.

I brought up "Bad Santa" earlier. That film worked because it was so relentlessly committed to the darkness of its characters of the pessimissm of its world. Even its "happy" ending was nothing more than its lead character's cynical manipulation of his ultimate circumstances. "Observe and Report" lacks that commitment. When it should play the moment straight it plays it wacky and too often it goes for the pratfall when it doesn't have to. Nonetheless, this doesn't make the movie "not good" it just makes the movie "not excellent"(keep in mind, my expectations were calibrated for some kind of superlative experience). The real credit to the movie is that despite its shortcomings, I'd love to revisit Ronnie's world again to see where he is in a few years.

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