Review: Observe and Report

We’ve seen Hollywood do paint-by-numbers comedy. Heck, we’ve even recently seen a paint-by-numbers mall cop comedy. But if there’s anything we can say definitively about Jody Hill’s Observe and Report, it is that it doesn’t give a f–k about painting or numbers.
By  · Published on April 9th, 2009

Observe and Report

I know what you’re thinking. How? Well, I’m just that good. Also, there is this very common nature in all movie-goers, wherein we seek to judge a movie by placing it in context with other, similar movies. In fact, that is pretty much the essence of being a “film critic” or “reviewer.” Aside from those with the ability to provide a unique perspective on a film or change the way we think about film as a whole, most of us just try to play the contextualizer. And one thing that you will undoubtedly read a lot if you are doing some risk assessment on spending your money to see Jody Hill’s Observe and Report this weekend, it is that it is just another mall cop movie, and we’ve already seen that this year with Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

The truth is that aside from the fact that they are both movies about mall cops — in this case Seth Rogen plays Ronnie, the bi-polar, gun crazy, deeply delusional head of mall security at the Forest Ridge Mall. And the fact that both mall cops live at home with the mothers — Ronnie lives with his perpetually drunk mother played by Celia Weston. And not to mention the fact that they both pine after a mall co-worker who has little interest in them — Ronnie loves a vapid, pill-popping make-up girl named Brandi, played by Anna Faris. And of course most of each film’s conflict comes when a real member of law enforcement — in this case a detective played by Ray Liotta — has to step in to solve a crime inside the mall. But don’t let that fool you, these are two very different movies.

They are different because while Paul Blart: Mall Cop is the same old uninspired, simplistic comedy routine that you’d expect from the combination of Kevin James and Are We Done Yet? director Steve Carr. Whereas Observe and Report is the kind of pitch-black comedy that no Hollywood studio would dare make, the sick brand of comedy that has people running to Jody Hill’s other work, specifically with his first film The Footfist Way and the HBO series that he co-created, Eastbound and Down. To quote a guy I know, this shit is dark. And if dark comedy is your brand, then this film is right up your alley. It is astonishing that a studio — especially one of the majors like Warner Bros. — would let a mostly untested filmmaker (though in fairness, Hill’s track record with Foot Fist is solid) make such an aggressively provocative film. There are kudos given there.

Of course, like The Foot Fist Way, Observe and Report does suffer at times, especially after the blitz of humor that comes with the introduction of the characters in act one. The film begins with a focus on Ronnie and his team of minions — including a hysterical supporting performance from serious actor Michael Peña as his over-the-top right hand man — trying to catch a local pervert and Ronnie trying to get with Brandi. Somewhere in the middle though, the story shifts to Ronnie’s desire to be a real policeman. And save for a few funny scenes — including a hilarious exchange between Ronnie and Saddam (Aziz Ansari) the lotion stand guy and a gangland fight scene featuring one Danny McBride — the film seems as if it loses steam. But that is a bi-product of the way Jody Hill tells his story — not everything is cut and dry, not every character has a cookie-cutter character arc. There’s not that one big, lofty goal like saving the Rec Center. It is not the simple story we’ve come to know from the average Hollywood comedy. And that is why it works so well.

In addition, you might find yourself floored by the film’s final moments, when the story takes a turn in a direction that no one sees coming. It is an ending that is quite possibly one of the biggest stunners we’ve seen in a long time, as dark and funny and shocking as they come. It is the ballsy sort of storytelling that only happens in the indie world, making it all the more interesting to see it play out in a studio movie. As well, Observe and Report is a departure from the characters that we’ve seen Seth Rogen play in the past. This is, without a doubt, his most mature performance yet. Ronnie is not just another lovable stoner, he’s more of a tortured and tragic figure. A man with good intentions that are too often misplaced. He’s also totally delusional.

As for the other characters, they all seem to work in conjunction with Rogen’s performance. Ray Liotta is the perfect actor for the role of Detective Harrison, Ronnie’s “nemesis” of sorts. Harrison is a cop who takes his job seriously who is surrounded by idiots. It works because like his character, Ray Liotta is a serious actor in the midst of a bunch of people who have made their way making stoner comedies. As well, Anna Faris gave some depth to an otherwise hollow character. In the hands of a lesser actor, Brandi would have become a complete cliché, but she doesn’t. Why? Because Anna Faris’ delivery is spot on. By far the most compelling character might be Ronnie’s mom, played by Celia Weston. Her character says some of the most awful, pathetic things that you might imagine a mother saying to her son, but her delivery is dynamic enough to elicit completely different reactions from different members of the audience — some people will be horrified, some people will laugh, and still others will be horrified that they laughed. And such is the brilliance of this movie — it will make you laugh, but don’t be surprised if you feel a little bad about it as well.

Put simply, this is one of those films that is as polarizing as they come, splitting both critics and audiences down the middle. If you dig on Jody Hill’s brand of humor, a very dark and aggressive brand of story set to a heavy rocking soundtrack (that is awesome, by the way), then you are going to love this film. If you are more in the mood for simple, uninspired comedy routines made to play to the lowest common denominator, then it’s likely that you won’t be able to get into the very smart, very dark story presented in Observe and Report. And that’s okay, I suppose. The rest of us will just have to go enjoy this unique and provocative piece of filmmaking without you.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)