2009 | Director & Writer: Jody Hill
Unlike dramas, many of which presume to suggest that there is good inside everyone, great comedies wield no such pretense, preferring instead to assert the innate selfishness of human nature; failure, after all, is funny, and what failure is greater than that of man, stepping on the backs of others in a futile attempt to achieve personal happiness? The makers of bad comedies, such as those lost souls behind early 2009’s “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” tend to forget that Aristotelian blueprint for the genre, placing inauthentic “good” persons at the center of their bland exercises, and the resulting crap they produce is usually something like, well, “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.”
Happily, this year’s second mall cop movie is “Observe and Report,” Jody Hill’s outrageous, genre-defying love letter to failure. As relentlessly dark and disturbing as it is funny and artful, “Observe” succeeds because, simply put, its characters are human to the core, sharing more in common with the self-centered likes of “The Simpsons” or the Bluth family from “Arrested Development” than with Blart and his post-“Happy Gilmore” Adam Sandler-spawned kin.
“Observe” finds delusional head of mall security Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) attempting to apprehend, with the help of his oddball team of deputies, a flasher who frequents mall premises. When a no-nonsense police detective (Ray Liotta) is called to investigate after the flasher disturbs Ronnie’s unrequited object of lust—makeup kiosk-girl Brandi (a wonderfully aloof Anna Faris)—the bipolar security guard decides, with humorous solemnity, to pursue his dormant dream of becoming a hero cop in order to win Brandi’s rotten heart and save everyone from the black cloud of crime he sees descending on his world.
The thing largely missing from writer-director Hill’s first two projects, the indie comedy “The Foot Fist Way” and the HBO series “East Bound and Down,” was charisma; the lead in both was Danny McBride, who is hilarious as a character actor (his sidekick role in last year’s “Pineapple Express” was the film’s high point), but whose limited range and one-note delivery keep him from being anywhere close to likeable as a leading man. Rogen, on the other hand, in addition to being able to emote at an adequate level, oozes a chummy friendliness at all times, so one can sense that the power-hungriness and desperation in a character like Ronnie comes from a place of vulnerability. He’s utterly relatable, but he’s also a fantasy man, the personification of any one of our miserable lives, taken to the extreme.
Hill taps that frustrated neediness with a newfound artistic eye that thrills visually as much as the dialogue delivers laughs. The film has a sumptuous look that accentuates the sad desperation its characters wallow in, but Hill, a true comedian to the end, still finds a way to litter the pitch-black tone and deadpan dialogue with absurd touches that brighten even the darkest moments. It’s alternately realistic and dreamlike, jokey and semi-serious, even to the point of tonal inconsistency at junctures, but the bottom line is that “Observe” is undoubtedly one of the more memorable and unique comedies in years, and by far the most interesting film of 2009 so far. “Paul Blart” it’s not, and thank goodness for that.
Rating: Four of Five Stars
Content Warning: Pervasive foul language, some violence, and male nudity