I have no affection for this movie but I have to admit to a grudging admiration for its willingness to be awkward, intrusive, and disturbing. A stark contrast to the similarly-themed and similarly plotted Paul Blart Mall Cop of just three months ago, this could easily have been a raunchier take on the same easy targets — mall shops, mall music, mall food, and mall shoppers as a proxy for an America that is soft in the middle and narcotized by things that can be bought by credit cards.
But writer/director Jody Hall (of the cult favorite “The Foot Fist Way”) makes comic movies with so much edge they can give you a paper cut. He does not go for the easy laugh that makes you feel good about yourself, you know, the one that lulls audiences into thinking that their families are not dysfunctional, just quirky, and that their pain makes them authentic and charming. This movie is funny but it is upsetting and very dark.
The overall structure of the movie is very much like the mall cop movie of just three months ago, “Paul Blart.” Both are about would-be policemen who take our their frustration with petty enforcements when they are not mooning over a pretty mall employee.
But where “Paul Blart” was cute and gentle, “Observe and Report” is harsh and bleak. There are no cheery pop songs on the soundtrack to let us know they are just kidding. And there is not much in the way of lessons learned or getting in touch with the life force. Seth Rogen plays Ronnie, a sad, lonely, and angry man who is borderline delusional. He lives with his alcoholic mother. He yearns for Brandi (a fearless Anna Faris), who works at a department store cosmetics counter. He bitterly resents Detective Henderson (Ray Liotta), who is assigned to investigate reports of a flasher who has been harassing women in the parking lot. In a subversion of the usual movie tropes, he decides to ride to the occasion and resolve the flasher case himself as a way of proving himself. But his instincts are skewed and he makes a series of poor judgments and expensive mistakes that are played for comedy.
Rogen, Faris, Celia Weston as Ronnie’s mother, and Michael Pena as his second in command manage the difficult material well, but Hall is more adept as writer (and selector of esoteric songs for the soundtrack) than as a director. The tone may be even more harsh than intended just due to an uncertain control of narrative and character. Hill says he was inspired by Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and “King of Comedy,” but he needs to do a bit more observing and reporting of his own to make sure he understands what makes those movies work.