OBSERVE AND REPORT
1. Many reviews have referred to Observe and Report has some sort of comedic Taxi Driver — come on, that movie’s funny! It has Albert Brooks in it! — but they’re similar in the same way that Dr. Strangelove and Rocky IV are similar in that they both concern Russians. Taxi Driver and Observe and Report are both about delusional psychopaths who think they’re some sort of protector, but that’s where the comparison flips over and dies. (Not that the movie doesn’t desperately try to keep it up: When it has run out of ideas by the end, our “hero” Ronnie Barnhardt begins randomly reciting Travis Bickle-esque “cleanse the planet of filth” soliloquies meant to conjure Scorsese’s masterpiece and give the film a depth it hasn’t earned.) Taxi Driver was about a world diseased, a brilliantly realized cesspool that lured you into thinking that maybe someone should destroy everything and start over. Observe and Report is, simply, a repeated joke about a mall. Is Barnhardt’s mania supposed to say something about consumerism? About America’s complacency? About spiritual emptiness in the face of convenience? I have no idea, and, frankly, I don’t think the film has really thought it through all that well. Ronnie Barnhardt is just disturbed, and he’s a mall cop. That really is the joke. The movie can act as dark as it wants to, and look as fine, and throw weird curveballs at you when you’re least expecting it, but the fact is: That really is the movie’s one joke. Crazy guy with violent tendencies works in a mall.
2. It pains me considerably to say that, because I’m extremely fond of Jody Hill, the director, and co-creator of the great Eastbound and Down, which cares about its characters, in a way that pokes fun at them but never, ever mocks them, with an empathy I was shocked to find this film lacking. Hill’s a hyperactive but meticulous director, mixing music and slow motion to create compelling setpieces that never quite add up to much. He’s a more muscular, less precious Wes Anderson, but he doesn’t bring much more to the table here; the film is a series of scenes that work but don’t fit. He’s more interested in upending your expectations than providing you any emotional center. Observe and Report wants to be a shock comedy, but for something to shock, it has to have some sense of normalcy to jolt you out of. There isn’t a single moment in this movie where any human acts like any other human you have ever met. Hill would be proud of that, I’m sure. I think that’s a large part of the problem.
3. For a whole film about a man who deems himself Protector Of A Mall, you’d think the mall itself would be more of a presence in the film, stand in for the world we live in, or at least have a little bit of life to it. (After all, malls have made great movie settings, from zombie massacres to car chases.) But, nope: This is just a mall. There’s no real juice to it, no comment on what the mall stands for, nothing to make you understand why Barnhardt would deem it worth protecting. Also — and I’ll tread lightly here — I’m not sure why, at no point, anyone involved with this mall would point out that, uh, we have an insane person as our head of security. I don’t mean incompetent: I mean certifably insane. How Barnhardt would be installed of the head of anything is a mystery the film isn’t interesting in exploring. Ronnie is like the movie itself: Just a series of empty vessels where random strange things happen. If we’re going to believe that Ronnie thinks the mall is the one place worth salvaging, if it’s the one place he feels comfortable, we have to see why. The movie never stops to consider that. It just wants to mock the guy who takes the mall too seriously.
4. One of the great joys of “Eastbound and Down” is the kaleidoscope of personalities we meet during Kenny Powers’ travels; even when they’re cartoonish, they’re given room to breathe and act like normal humans. There are no normal humans in this movie, and it suffers for it. Everyone is an extreme: Anna Faris’ Brandi is a bubbleheaded shrew; Ray Liotta’s Detective Harrison is just there to provide a counterpoint to Ronnie (and isn’t once established as anything but, and mostly just does what the “plot” requires him to do at that particular moment), and Michael Pena’s Dennis is a lisping, ludicrous grotesque. Worst, though, is what the movie puts poor Celia Weston, as Ronnie’s alcoholic mother, through. Weston, so perfect in Junebug, passes out on the floor, poops her pants, drinks straight out of Jack Daniels’ bottles and openly tells Ronnie his father left the family because of him. Is there any pathos to this? Is she allowed to have a moment of humanity at all? She isn’t. She’s there for vapid, mean punchlines. And, sorry to say, but Seth Rogen is all wrong for this part. He’s too witty, too comfortable with easy broad strokes, to really dig into this guy. He plays him as insane and deluded … and then he stops right there. There should be a little Private Pyle in Ronnie, a hint of ongoing torture right underneath the surface. Rogen might be pull this off someday — he certainly has the right mix of distance and frustration — but not yet. There’s nothing there.
5. Much of this would be moot if this movie were funnier, but, sad to say, it isn’t. The best moments seem improvised, like Aziz Ansari’s out-of-nowhere Chick-fil-A gag, or Rogen’s hilarious rejoinder to a reporter who refuses to get his job title correct. The only truly funny moments don’t grow out of the characters; they feel created by funny people, spontaneously, and judged too clever to be omitted. This movie has a clever idea — what if a mall cop truly believed he was society’s last protector? — and then wraps it up in stylish sight gags and muffles the message by making Ronnie just a garden-variety, everyday bipolar depressive. How are we to take the end of this movie? As a triumph? As a violent rejoinder? As a big head fuck? Or as a cheap, purposefully bewildering, dick joke? I don’t think this movie knows. By then, you’re unlikely to much care anymore. If they’re not gonna commit to the characters in a movie, why should you?