Movie Review: Observe and Report
The Charlotte Observer
A director needs guts to make a character a creep and keep faith that an audience will give a hoot about him.
Alfred Hitchcock did it with many a villain. Martin Scorsese made a habit of it with Robert De Niro for decades. Jody Hill has gone to that well with “Observe and Report” and come back with a bucket of water that will seem sweet to some, sour to others.
People who think of Seth Rogen as a cuddly, pot-addled buffoon with a sentimental streak will gulp at the shaven-headed, delusional racist who stalks through “Report,” waiting for a chance to detonate.
People who think of Anna Faris as a pert, good-natured comedienne will gasp at the blowsy, crude, alcoholic slattern with whom Rogen is obsessed. Chinks of mirth let some light into this emotional murk, but violence always hovers around a dark corner.
Rogen plays Ronnie Barnhardt, a 30-ish mall security guard who lives with his drunken mother (Celia Weston). Ronnie literally dreams of being a policeman, partly because the mall where he works won't let him carry a gun. And he dreams about sex with Brandi (Faris), for whom the term “display counter” refers as much to her cleavage as the cosmetics she sells.
When a flasher descends on Brandi at the mall, Det. Harrison (Ray Liotta) investigates the crime. Ronnie doesn't know whether to be helpful – maybe Harrison can help him get onto the police force – or resentful of the potential competition for Brandi's attention. Ultimately, as events turn against him on all fronts, he starts to boil over.
Hill, who wrote the script, has taken a giant step beyond “The Foot Fist Way,” his 2006 comedy about an equally delusional martial arts instructor. (That was the breakout role for Danny McBride, Hill's classmate at UNC School of the Arts. McBride now stars in Hill's HBO series, “Eastbound & Down,” as an egomaniacal ex-athlete, and he has one funny rant as a crackhead in this new film.)
When the former Cabarrus County resident shot “Foot Fist” in Concord, he struggled to shape ideas and cut scenes at places where they naturally ended. Now he and editor Zene Baker (another NCSA grad) move “Observe” along crisply; in fact, I wish they'd spent more than 88 minutes telling the story and fleshed out supporting characters.
Hill boldly made even those folks oddballs. Michael Peña, a warmhearted guy in “World Trade Center” and “Crash,” now lisps and minces and smacks people in the head. Collette Wolfe is spot-on as Nell, the dimly earnest Toast-a-Bun employee who gives Ronnie free coffee each day but would rather give him her heart. Sweet as she is, Nell remains an enabler and a fool.
Some folks have invoked “Taxi Driver” when describing Ronnie's character. He's more like Rupert Pupkin in Scorsese's disturbing “The King of Comedy,” where De Niro was the unhinged comic whose ineptitude was obvious to everyone but himself.
You can't root for Ronnie. You can't identify with him. You can't hope he gets the girl – any girl – or the police job or even the crook, whose streak through the mall gets plenty of full frontal exposure. But you may want to look on with stunned fascination as he ticks away, ready to explode.