Assault & Battery
Seth Rogen comedy is all risk, no reward
by Jason Blair
OBSERVE AND REPORT: Written and directed by Jody Hill. Cinematography, Tim Orr. Music, Joseph Stephens. Starring Seth Rogen, Anna Faris, Celia Weston, Michael Peña, Collette Wolfe and Ray Liotta. Warner Bros., 2009. R. 86 minutes.
|Michael Peña, Jesse Plemons and Seth Rogen in Observe and Report|
Observe and Report commences with mall employees assembling their wares to The Band’s version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” the jangly gem of wishful thinking gently underscoring their despair. The unexpected music, sweetly ironic, is only a setup for the next scene, in which a flasher runs across the parking lot, baring his bishop to as many people as possible. So far, so strange, so good, right? Alas, no. We’re quickly entrusted to the man-child responsible for mall security, Ronnie (Seth Rogen), a high-spirited, dim-witted mall cop given to lecturing staff on law enforcement and coffee. Ronnie turns out to be agile for his size, a quality he’ll need to catch the streaker; mentally, however, he’s runtish, especially when compared to an actual cop like Harrison (Ray Liotta), the detective assigned to the case. When the streaker strikes at Brandi (Anna Faris), the cosmetics girl Ronnie fancies, it sets up an escalating battle between the two men for Brandi, pulling the film apart in tone, story and just plain coherence. From there the film darkens until it simply dims out.
On his small but devoted staff Ronnie places a gag order, insisting “I’m in charge of this case.” Naturally, he isn’t. A hateful, angry tirade by Harrison inspires Ronnie to apply for the police force, an application summarily rejected on psychological grounds. Feeling defeated, Ronnie embraces his destructive side — spying on changing rooms, beating up teenagers and using Taser guns without provocation — and Observe and Report completely loses its way. Lisps, gays, the disabled: No perceived weakness is safe. At one point I felt I was experiencing a documentary of schizophrenic felons in stolen rent-a-cop garb. I don’t watch Rogen and his ilk for lessons in morality, but Observe and Report is so debased, so unredeemably unfunny, that it made me feel a little sick to my stomach. It’s so coldhearted it makes wreckage like Dodgeball seem positively inspirational.
Observe and Report is redeemed by its two female performers, Faris and Celia Weston. Faris won’t get much credit for playing Brandi. For one thing, Brandi essentially is date raped by Ronnie — a travesty only barely avoided when, seemingly without waking up, she cajoles Ronnie not to stop. But Faris does nothing halfway here; she plays the bimbo with abandon, a girl whose mind and morals are on permanent vacation, which is never as easy as it looks. This is Faris’s best work since her small but similarly shallow part as a model in Lost in Translation. Likewise, Celia Weston is slumming here as Ronnie’s alcoholic mother, but she brings humor, vulnerability and even grace to the role. Her character is so tattered, such a bullseye of failure, that Weston embraces her flaws by hiding them in plain sight. She passes out in the middle of conversations with Ronnie. Or she merely drifts away in her attention to him, only to drift back with “I’m drunk” — an apology uttered with all the fanfare we might use to say “I’m tired” or “I’m thirsty.”
Observe and Report has two modes: boring and offensive. It is vengeful, stupid and messianic in the worst way: What we have in Ronnie is a watered-down God complex that’s really an adolescent gun complex. The film is beyond stupid; it’s stupefying how stupid it manages to be. I expect more from Jody Hill, the writer of the HBO cult hit Eastbound and Down, who takes a perfect premise here and, after a terrific setup, observes little and reports even less of interest. Hill claims Observe and Report was inspired by Taxi Driver, a likeness not apparent in this dunderheaded mess and an indicator that perhaps
Ronnie’s delusions have an autobiographical source.