Acting as a counterpoint to the Judd Apatow brand of edgy-but-huggable comedy is Jody Hill. The director of “The Foot Fist Way” and the HBO comedy series “Eastbound & Down,” Hill has built his name through a deployment of toxic absurdity, showcasing his favorite subject: the unholy wrath of the social reject who takes himself seriously.
“Observe and Report” presents Hill with his largest cinematic canvas to date, and while the film doesn’t always balance its bizarre mojo with razor-sharp skill, I’ll give Hill credit for sticking to his morbid vision, submitting an acidic, anarchic layer cake of mental illness with comedy teddy bear Seth Rogen as its seal of approval. It’ll be fascinating to see how this demented, treehouse feature is received by audiences accustomed to far bouncier takes on smutty giggles.
Bi-polar, self-centered, and Taser-empowered, Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) furiously stalks the hallways and parking lots of the local mall as the head of security. When a determined flasher hits the property, frightening an adored cosmetics employee (Anna Faris), Ronnie makes it his duty to take down the perpetrator. Competing for law-enforcement glory is Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta), who can’t stand Ronnie and his delusions of power. Hoping to join the force and make the leap from golf carts to squad cars, Ronnie finds his aspirations thwarted by his own troubling mania, leading the mall cop to reach for even higher acts of curdled heroism to prove himself to the uncaring world.
“Observe and Report” isn’t a grand statement of big league studio opportunity from Jody Hill, as the picture struts with the same slap-happy, dirt-under-the-fingernail cadences the filmmaker has now built a career upon; the only new elements on display here are an actual budget (A Hill first) and jester du jour Rogen, who replaces longtime collaborator Danny McBride (appearing in a tiny cameo here as a crack dealer/devoted father). The new surroundings seem to embolden Hill’s furrowed brow fixation on lunacy and he constructs a demented procedural comedy that lounges in the headspace of a psychopath, examining his propensity for violence and swollen sense of purpose. Warm and fuzzy this film is most certainly not.
Comparisons to “Taxi Driver” are quite apt, with Hill and Rogen instilling Ronnie with the same soufflé of psychosis that created an iconic screen antihero in Travis Bickle. Living with a gleefully alcoholic mother (Celia Weston), finding a romantic fixation in a woman that wants nothing to do with him (Faris, again proving her special comedic mettle), and refused access to his treasured police dreams, Ronnie is a time bomb of disillusionment and doubts tucked neatly into a polyester uniform. Again, Hill plays all of the above for laughs, often aggressively so, using blunt editing and blasts of glorious soundtrack cuts (Queen’s “It’s Late” and “The Hero” are masterfully utilized) to highlight the unnervingly silly fragmentation of Ronnie’s diseased mind.
While claustrophobic and defiantly specialized, “Observe” is heavy with brutal slapstick and broad humor to keep the laughs coming. Rogen’s deliriously committed performance acts as a beacon for the rest of the gags, most centered on lackluster mall crime stopping and awkward employee interaction (Collette Wolfe shines brightly as Ronnie’s lone food court supporter). Being a film created primarily to make viewers uncomfortable, farcical asides into drug abuse, graphic male nudity, and extreme violence are sure to divide the audience, but Hill sets a tone of impalement early on that “Observe” is more than happy to live up to. If Ronnie’s corrosive antics strike you as nauseating within the opening 10 minutes of the picture, where Hill ultimately takes “Observe” is not somewhere you’ll want to follow.
I laughed heartily at much of “Observe” (everything except Michael Pena as Ronnie’s top underling, the only actor here straining obnoxiously to make himself noticed), marveling over its determination to creep out the room with constant displays of pure inhumanity. Ronnie’s corruption is not an easy journey to absorb, but “Observe and Report” is committed to the hellish descent all the way. This unswerving dedication to unseemly acts of worthless fortitude forms quite a vivid motion picture, though perhaps one that should come equipped with protective headgear to enjoy to the fullest possible extent.