New York Times critic Bosley Crowther once complained of Stanley Kubrick’s harrowing and hilarious Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, “Virtually everybody turns up stupid or insane — or, what is worse, psychopathic.” Crowther’s concern was not just that Kubrick was making a sick joke out of the idea of nuclear war, but that he seemed (to Crowther) to be out to undermine, discredit and mock the entire American military and executive establishment, depicting the U.S.A. itself as a dangerously deranged member of the global community. Dr. Strangelove is, of course, essential satire and a stone classic. Observe and Report is more derivative and less urgent. Still, it’s quite something. Watching it made me feel a little bit like Bosley Crowther fussing over the Kubrick. “Somehow, to me, it isn’t funny,” Crowther wrote. “It is malefic and sick.”
It might seem a little much to throw a two-dollar word like malefic at Observe and Report. Still, this bleak yarn about a delusional, medicated, mama’s-boy shopping-mall security guard unavoidably reads as a subversive response to family-friendly multiplex fodder like Paul Blart: Mall Cop that employs the popular strategy of elevating the schlub Everyman to the status of superhero. Writer/director Jody Hill has no confidence in the goodness of Everyman. Indeed, just about everyone in this film is, to borrow Crowther’s words, stupid, insane, or psychopathic. Ronnie Barnhardt, played by a doughy, blank-eyed Seth Rogen, is all three. (Someone in the film mentions that Ronnie suffers from bipolar disorder; if there were a sufficiently well-organized bipolar advocacy and support group, it would likely have been demonstrating outside multiplexes this weekend.) The effect is unusually sobering. As one minor character remarks about two-thirds of the way through, providing a startling, deliberate autocritique, “I thought this would be kind of funny, but it’s actually kind of sad.” If Crowther thought Strangelove would damage this country’s reputation abroad, I can only imagine how he’d feel about Observe and Report.
Seeing Rogen doing publicity with a dramatically slimmer physique than he sports on screen, I had to wonder if his exercise-and-diet regimen came as an effort to immediately distance his star persona from the pathetic specimen he portrays. Ronnie lives at home with his alcoholic mother, absent a father who fled years ago because of Ronnie’s status as a special-needs child. Properly medicated, and now empowered as the head of security at the Forest Ridge Mall, he likes to behave like a character out of an old TV cop drama or a pulp detective novel, with a painfully elevated swagger and a disproportionate sense of his place in the universe. He’s a gun nut who nurtures wild, retributive fantasies of justice-meting that grow more violent and dangerous as his imagined sphere of influence expands — and especially after he goes off his meds, which seem to represent a tenuous connection with the real world.
Ronnie has romantic fantasies, too, which revolve around Brandi (Anna Faris), a frankly slutty cosmetics clerk who would prefer to pretend he doesn’t exist. Meanwhile, in generic-movie-meathead fashion, he fails to notice the friendly, earnest attention paid to him by coffee-shop cashier Nell (Collette Wolfe), the born-again-virgin counterpart to Brandi’s unrepentant whore. It’s the film’s reductive, simplistic treatment of its female characters (plus, OK, Faris’s generally unimpeachable skill at portraying the unexamined life) that helps it get away with a semi-conscious sex scene that’s the film’s most transgressive gag, in several senses of the word. Ronnie has browbeaten Brandi into going out to dinner with him; she has downed at least a half-dozen drinks plus a handful of psychoactive drugs; he has helped her into her home and her bed. What ensues — in a single shot, maybe 10 seconds long — may qualify as a rape scene, depending on how you read the set-up and/or how much credit you give to its punchline. The key questions are whether you can imagine a scenario where Brandi gives something resembling consent, or whether you believe her sudden, profane outburst (“Why’d you stop, motherfucker?”) when Ronnie ceases pounding her for a moment demonstrates any kind of clarity on her part.
Inasmuch as the film cares how Brandi feels about the whole episode, it’s abundantly clear that she’s none the worse for wear. But then, calling either Brandi or Nell two-dimensional characters would be generous. Writer/director Jody Hill is interested in them only because their peripheral presence can be used to shape Ronnie’s Travis-Bickle-like character arc, where naive romantic gestures eventually give way to corrosive macho posturing, explosions of violence, and eventual ironic redemption. With the possible exception of Ray Liotta’s straight-arrow police detective, comically tormented by his repeated run-ins with Ronnie’s incompetence, most every character is collateral damage in an explosion of profoundly bad vibes, from Ronnie’s sexually promiscuous mother (Celia Weston) and sociopathic co-workers to the caricatured crackheads downtown and the leering flasher (Rangy Gambill) who buzzes the mall, wearing a facial expression that suggests he’s contemplating a particularly delicious piece of cake and leaving behind as a clue only a Polaroid photograph depicting his unclad bathing-suit region.
Said pervert enlivens the movie considerably during its final action sequence, which visualizes the epic, mano-a-mano confrontation between Ronnie and the swinging dick he imagines will finally give his life meaning. Staged in slow motion and set to a cover version of “Where is my Mind?” it’s laugh-out-loud funny stuff, especially given what we’ve learned about Ronnie’s freighted psychology — this is like a long-festering pimple finally rising to the surface, loaded with pus and vitriol. But the film never finds a moment of catharsis, or even a sense of balance, because Hill never feels it necessary to actually confront or contextualize Ronnie’s psychopathology in a meaningful way. Instead, he has created a world of frustratingly restricted boundaries that’s populated by cartoons, its general affectlessness dialing back any consequences of Ronnie’s frightening actions. Observe and Report hovers uncomfortably in a netherworld between shallow comedy and callow tragedy, between empathy for its characters and mere ridicule. Too often it plays more like Napoleon Dynamite than the kind of unnerving films from which Hill draws his inspiration. Imagine Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy if everyone in sight had been written and performed as a maladjusted loser, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the affliction that ultimately sinks this film.