Behind the soullessly objective title Observe and Report comes a mighty volcano of psychosexual mayhem—a landmark crazy (as in pathological) comedy. It’s set in a mall and centers on a cop, but it is to Paul Blart: Mall Cop as Taxi Driver is to Taxi. The writer-director, Jody Hill, goes straight for the action-comedy genre’s underbelly, which turns out to be dark, violent, and jiggly. He opens with an overweight man rushing up to women in the parking lot, spreading his raincoat, and gleefully waggling the family jewels. A short time later, another overweight man, head of mall security Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen), proclaims, “Part of me thinks this disgusting pervert is the best thing that ever happened to me.” He’s right—insanely right. The fat creep has not only given Ronnie’s life a focus—he’s virtually Ronnie’s doppelgänger. On the hunt, the blowhard gun nut Ronnie now has license to wave his own rod in people’s faces—particularly the face of Brandi (Anna Faris), the lissome blonde cosmetics clerk whose counter he haunts.
Ronnie makes for an aggressively unattractive hero—and some of us were already thinking, Haven’t we seen enough of Seth Rogen for one lifetime? Yet director Hill piles on the unpleasantries as if determined to test our impulse to identify with the man carrying the gun (or, here, Taser). Ronnie lords it over the guys (racial minorities) in his security detail. He harasses a Muslim lotion vendor. He takes advantage of Brandi’s terror of the flasher to press her for a date—and give her a little squeeze. He relentlessly interferes with the ultra-professional detective (Ray Liotta) on the case. It’s true that in comedies like Anchorman and Step Brothers, Will Ferrell wins us over as fatuously self-centered child-men, but Ferrell is ineradicably sweet. Rogen’s Ronnie is on a different plane of ickiness. Coming face-to-face with him in life, we might actually fear for our safety.
But Hill isn’t simply raising the bar on grossness. His purview is wider. Macho mini-despots—and their origins—interest him. His first film, The Foot Fist Way (2006), focused on a similar character, Fred (Danny McBride), a martial-arts instructor given to bullying people who made him feel small (among them little kids). Only after this peewee fascist was thoroughly humiliated—by much bigger fascists—and had to overcome the urge to curl up in the fetal position for the rest of his pathetic life did we finally care about him: He was a dick, but he was suddenly our dick. The Foot Fist Way was monotonous—it got stuck in a derisive-mockumentary groove. But somehow, without our quite realizing it, Hill made us see Fred not as a monster but a casualty of his culture. If you pricked him (or kicked him in the head), he would bleed.
Observe and Report’s Ronnie is a casualty, too—of a broken family (his father is long gone, his mother a prodigiously sloppy drunk), some bad genes (he’s on strong psychoactive meds), a gun culture, sexual frustration exacerbated by stacked blondes in short dresses, and the accumulating spiritual effects of working in a mall and eating fast food. As Travis Bickle was a sponge for urban bad vibes, Ronnie is modern suburban mall culture gone freakazoid. Hill hits what seems like a bad-taste peak early on (Ronnie grinding away on top of an ostensibly unconscious alcohol-and-drug-addled, vomit-flecked Brandi) and just keeps climbing. When Ronnie and his second-in-command, Dennis (Michael Peña), embark on an orgy of drug-taking and authoritarian violence against unarmed civilians, the air in the theater feels dangerously thin. Is this a comedy again?
Most certainly—thanks to, among other things, an ensemble of comic geniuses. Ray Liotta uses the tension between his ravaged, teenage-delinquent complexion and girlishly soft eyes—all at once they twinkle with sadism—to make you laugh before he opens his mouth. Anna Faris expels her Valley Girl lines as if hysterically entranced by her own blondeness; her hyperventilations are exquisite. Celia Weston plays Ronnie’s mother’s alcoholism not to the hilt but the hilt above the hilt. I won’t spoil the joke in Peña’s lisping, baby-sweet security guard, but I’ll say it’s in the tail—and it stings. And damn if Rogen isn’t wonderful, too. He never sugars Ronnie’s dementia. As the blind fool skulks around the mall, egregious in his “undercover” attire (“I live by a code of my own invention,” he narrates. “In these dark times, the world has no use for another scared man”), you see that he believes in his own omniscience. Observe and Report is the rare “action-comedy” (almost always a muddled hybrid) that earns its cathartic climax. The blood is real because the psychosis is real. But somehow—the magic of comedy—it’s also uproarious.