Posted by: znewkirk | April 22, 2009

New Release: Observe and Report

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.

Director Jody Hill explains to Seth Rogen how not to act like the guy from "Paul Blart: Mall Cop."

Director Jody Hill explains to Seth Rogen how not to act like the guy from "Paul Blart: Mall Cop."

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



  1. I have to disagree but I certainly wish you had voiced your opinions when we recorded the podcast about this movie. Would have made for lively discussion.

    The movie is about a failure that inexplicably finds success in all aspects of his life. It’s not so much “genre-defying” as genre-confused.

    At times it plays like Anderson’s Bottle Rocket; sprinkled with moments of quirk and absurdity. Unfortunately it marries that with ridiculous actions that are never resolved OR have no consequences in what Hill paints to be an otherwise believable real world.

    I gave it a 3/5 for trying, being technically proficient (which I agree with you about to a degree), and being something that had an effect on the viewer (though I don’t know if it’ll be a good memorable). I have to think anything over that is just pretentious critiques on America/Americans OR people that want to see what are fundamental structure and logic problems in the story and protagonist as something innovative which is kind of sad. ’cause that shit has been done before.

  2. Absurdism is funny, and the fact that he’s so proficient in fighting (plus the film’s hilariously stupid climax) is absurd considering his profound flaws and acute selfishness. Plus, it’s a comedy, meaning “logic problems,” as you so ignorantly put it, are irrelevant. It’s the same unrealistic world all comedies exist in, meaning “Dirty Work,” “The Big Lebowski,” and “Punch Drunk Love.”

    I think you had some other problem with the film, like the fact that you were confused that nearly everyone in the theater except for you laughed at every single joke, and now you’re trying to justify why you didn’t like it by calling its comedic tenets unique. Heck, it’s the same movie as “Pineapple Express,” if you think about it. Red is shot like fifteen times, blown up, and doesn’t die. Wow, that sure steps outside the realm of perfect realist logic, which all comedies apparently must abide by.

    You’re wrong here, buddy, and by a wide margin. Not that you have to like the movie–if you didn’t find it funny, that’s your own subjective taste–but the reasons you give for its failure in your mind are shaky to say the least.

  3. I think that part in P.E. about Red was minor and the zany factor in the film was higher. O&R has moments where it really takes itself very seriously or it is creating that feeling to be some kind of double “gotcha” kind of comedy that I find sophmoric. This could have been what generated all the laughs as people (Or sheepole as I like to call them) figured it was a cue for them to make noise from mouth now!

    I’m not sure how I’m being “ignorant” about the logic problems either? Don’t get me wrong it is fine for a movie to be absurd and a comedy all the better. I love giant phones and consequence free uzi fights in churches. I think it’s an easy gimmick to create a somewhat realistic logic in the world in the movie and then betray that at a whim and call that comedy. To me it seems like lazy writing but maybe that is what passes for groudbreaking these days.

    See, we should have discussed this on the podcast it would have been a good listen.

  4. It wouldn’t have ended any differently if I had said it on the podcast. I like comedy for comedy’s sake, and you apparently need it to fit some tonally perfect rubric of realistic logic. I like characters who take themselves too seriously, I like when things get outrageously absurd in a real world setting, and I like deadpan. “Observe and Report” had all those things in spades.

    It’s lazier to write something “zany” as an excuse for humor that appears later than it is to put genuinely shocking or funny moments in something set against a more real-world backdrop. Lazy writing is “It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world.” Good comedic writing never second-guesses its audience, and it presents its off-the-wall humor in its own detailed, realized world. “The Big Lebowski” happens in as serious a world as the Coens will have you believe in. What’s funny is that its main characters act in almost pointlessly stupid fashion in the face of real events. That’s “Observe and Report” as much as it’s “A Shot in the Dark” or “It’s Always Sunny.”

    It takes guts to write something as hilarious as “Observe and Report” is with such dark undertones, and it takes sheer comedic skill to pull it off as well as it happened. If you don’t like it, that’s fine, but don’t blame that on a perceived faulty logic that exists equally in comedies you actually like. Just say you didn’t think it was funny.

    Subjectivity is a perfectly acceptable reason for not liking something that most other people like. But you’re trying so hard to rationalize your reaction that it’s coming off as pretentious. Don’t drag your subjectivity into the academic. Logic has no place in comedy.

  5. Well you did prove my point, which I like. It has been done before and in better films like The Big Lebowski and Rushmore is another. Rushmore even more has moments of real embarassing sadness and it also has a decent bit of laughs. I guess O&E pushes it beyond the limits of my suspension of disbelief. These debates are pointless though because comedy really is that subjective. But I think you do a great disservice to the great comedians of the ages to call it alogical. The funniest stuff is about ideas just, like anything that evokes feeling.

    See now that nugget would have been what the podcast would have ended up being about.

  6. You still don’t seem to get it, but at least you understand the subjectivity of comedy part. Also, you can’t fake that you won a debate just by saying, out of nowhere and for no reason, “you proved my point.” The point was that utterly illogical stuff happens in the logic-and-reality-based worlds in the comedies you DO like, so don’t blame that for being behind what you didn’t like about something else. Maybe you just dislike Seth Rogen. Who knows.

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