Thursday, April 9, 2009

Movie review: 'Observe and Report' has dark, bracing heart

Anna Faris and Seth Rogen in Observe and Report.

By John Thomason

In his ascent toward becoming the next (insert A-list comic actor here: Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, et al.), Seth Rogen has barely established his persona, yet he’s already starting to subvert it.

The Rogen brand is still in its infancy, but his most memorable roles – as the cutting co-worker in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, the accidental father in Knocked Up and the talk-radio-loving stoner in Pineapple Express– share enough in common that he’s already at risk of typecasting as an affable schlub whose boorish sexism is balanced by a charming, slacker hipness.

Observe and Report, Rogen’s latest comedy, suggests more of the same, in addition to stealing a bit from the tired Ferrell formula of quirky, small-time occupation (mall security guard) plus grandiose dreams (joining the police force and saving humankind) equals delightful hijinks. And as a movie about the head of a security force in a cookie-cutter suburban shopping mall, Observe and Report has the unfortunate distinction of opening a just a short time after another mall-cop comedy, one that inexplicably made a lot of money.

But keep with it, and this deceptive film will be worth your time.

Observe and Report is nothing less than a deliberate chipping away of the signature style Rogen has perfected, revealing a repressed savage waiting to explode. And the results are not always funny, even when the feign to be on the surface. When he shatters the glass of the makeup counter of one female mall employee - and, later, pummels the manager of another one -- the effect is jarring and more than a bit troubling. It made me think of Punch-Drunk Love, which similarly took Adam Sandler’s niche of quiet-to-loud comic explosiveness and turned it on its head, revealing a fragile and disturbed man flirting will mental illness.

In Observe, the mental breakdown of Rogen’s Ronnie Barnhardt is even more pronounced. Harboring bloodlust, anger-management issues and severe delusions of grandeur, he wants to graduate to the police force mostly so he can carry a gun and kill people. That’s the closest the film gets to a consistent dramatic thrust as it shambles from storyline to storyline. This actually works to the movie’s favor, because we can never predict its next direction.

At first, we think the focus will be on the capture of a genital-flashing pervert, whom we first see galloping through the mall parking lot and displaying his package to horrified women in an impressive, narrative-opening aerial shot. Then we think it’s going to be about Ronnie’s clashes with the police force, represented here by Ray Liotta’s Detective Harrison (these days, the pockmarked Liotta has a small-screen face if there ever was one – beware of his close-ups).

Then it jumps to Ronnie’s love life, as he tries to woo a slutty pop tart (Anna Faris) while ignoring the flirtatious banter from the cute and slightly crippled coffee salesgirl (Collette Wolfe). Then there’s the story about the late-night mall thefts, traced to Ronnie’s best friend Dennis (Michael Pena). In the mix of it all, we get a few glimpses of Ronnie’s home life, a Marty-like habitat shared with his mother, a hilariously drunken wreck played by Celia Weston.

But even Weston’s comic high points are steeped in melancholy and lacerating truth, revealing much about why her son turned out the way he did. There are moments that are purely uproarious – including Ronnie’s non-date date with makeup-counter ditz Brandi, a hysterical sequence with Ronnie dressed in undercover plainclothes that make him look like a ‘70s golfer, and a reemergence of the mall pervert at an inopportune moment.

But writer-director Jody Hill (The Foot Fist Way) is after something deeper with most of his film, which has an underlying savage bleakness that would impress Martin Scorsese. In most American comedies -- even the ones from Judd Apatow, the new standard-bearing sage of the genre – the main character follows an arc and changes for the better by the movie’s end. You don’t get that impression in Observe and Report, which is refreshingly devoid of a sentimental center or inevitable moral acquiescence.

It’s so nihilistic that it’s almost hard to believe this movie was made and released by a major studio, which is probably the biggest compliment I can bestow it.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

OBSERVE AND REPORT. Cast: Seth Rogen, Ray Liotta, Anna Faris, Michael Pena, Celia Weston; Director: Jody Hill; Studio: Warner Brothers; Opens: Friday; Venue: Most commercial houses

No comments: