Even dangerous lunatics have dreams. Just because you’re crazy doesn’t mean you can’t aspire to something higher, greater than yourself. All his life Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) has dreamed of serving something bigger than he is, all his life he’s dreamed of justice. Unfortunately Ronnie’s view of justice isn’t exactly the norm. In his bi-polar world justice is whatever he deems it to be and so we’re lucky that his existence is confined, mostly, to a few acres of clothing racks and concrete. Ronnie Barnhardt is the world’s most destructive, well meaning psychotic. He’s also a mall cop.
Observe and Report revolves around letting us see the world from this singular, disturbed point of view. This is Ronnie’s vision, his dream in which he’s the hero who’s kicked to the ground and then must rise up again to save the day, get the girl. That’s what Ronnie sees when he watches this movie in his head, but we know better. Ronnie’s a miserable, arrogant thug, a borderline idiot, a total prick; a garbage bag of insecurity, self-loathing and yes, mental illness. He makes everyone around him uncomfortable and he’s completely unpredictable. Selfish one minute, kind and forgiving the next. Loyal to a fault, but willing to betray anyone to accomplish his goals. It’s all brought into sharp focus when, for what must surely be the first time, Ronnie has an actual case.
He’s after a flasher. You know the type: Husky, middle-aged white man lurking inside a trench coat and accosting young women with his genitals as they attempt the trip from the mall to their cars. Ronnie vows to catch him and in the process block’s the police’s efforts to do the same. He sees himself as a knight in shining armor but we see a clumsy lout standing in the mall accusing the first brown guy he sees of being a terrorist. In the process of investigating the case Ronnie thinks he gets the girl (Anna Faris), but we see that the girl is a drunken whore who has no idea that it’s Ronnie lying on top of her.
Writer/director Jody Hill’s script is complex, brutal, and as different from the year’s other mall cop based movie Paul Blart as Blart is different from Watchmen. The film’s similarities being and end with their protagonists professions. Observe and Report isn’t even really a comedy, though it contains many funny moments. But it also holds within deep, dark violence, sometimes used for comedic effect, sometimes used to shock. It’s a dark comedy in the darkest sense of the term, a shocking and bravely written movie about a man who thinks he’s being pushed to the brink, even though he’s long since fallen off.
For Seth Rogen, this is the first real performance he’s ever given. Don’t get me wrong, he’s fantastic in movies like Knocked Up and Zack and Miri, but the truth is that he’s basically playing himself. We’ve seen it over and over again, Seth Rogen playing the lovable, raunchy stoner. Ronnie is nothing like any of those characters. In fact he’s their polar opposite. If Ronnie met Seth Rogen in his mall, he’d deliver a beat down just for the way he wears his beard. Yet Seth nails the character anyway, doing something completely outside of his comfort zone and making it work. Though it works, I’m not entirely convinced that the performance is his own. The part feels like it was written for Danny McBride, who plays the lead in Hill’s first movie The Foot Fist Way, and Rogen’s take at times almost feels like he’s doing his impression of how Danny might have played the character, rather than coming up with individualized ideas. Rogen’s great, but maybe the real Danny McBride would have been even better.
Observe and Report revels in violence and trades on the misery of others for laughs. It’s like Taxi Driver meets The Big Lebowski, a sick and morally bankrupt combination which absolutely should not work, yet does. It’s a celebration of savagery and madness, the story of a man who’s a hero in his own head. Who’s to say what’s right and wrong? Ronnie Barnhardt, that’s who.