Even if the early buzz around Jody Hill’s “Observe and Report” weren’t grouping it with “The Cable Guy,” the comparison would be obvious. Like that film, “Observe and Report” is said to be a “dark” comedy. In this case that means that calculated outrageousness, brutalism presented for laughs and easy cynicism passes for daring. When “Observe and Report” fails with audiences — as it will, and as “The Cable Guy” did — the myth will start about it being rejected because it disturbed its detractors. What disturbed me about “Observe and Report” was that the people around me who were laughing could let themselves be suckered by such a lunkheaded, crummy piece of moviemaking.
Seth Rogen’s Ronnie, the mall cop hero, is a paranoid schizophrenic who sees himself as the only man capable of keeping order in the retail jungle. Ronnie seems meant to be a cross between Travis Bickle and Ralph Kramden. He’s all bluster and delusions of sociopathic grandeur. When a flasher stalks the mall parking lot, Ronnie treats the incident as if Jack the Ripper were loose. And he plays it as a chance to make time with Brandi (Anna Faris), the make-up counter girl he’s got the hots for.
“Observe and Report” might have worked if Hill, whose last picture was “The Foot Fist Way,” had presented the film as Ronnie’s paranoid fantasy — which would be the only way to account for the lapses in logic. We’re asked to believe Ronnie would continue to be employed after one of the mall employees has had to take out a restraining order against him. Or that the cop (Ray Liotta) investigating the flasher would put up with Ronnie’s meddling for a minute. Or that somebody who causes the mayhem he does would last five minutes on the job.
But to be able to stylize a movie, you have to demonstrate that you have some notion of style, and Hill has none. Aesthetically, “Observe and Report” is an insult. For 90 minutes, we’re stuck staring at flat fluorescent lighting, drably painted walls and functional furniture. Hill and cinematographer Tim Orr shoot most of the movie in unrelenting close-up, so that the actors are turned into grotesques. This picture doesn’t have a technique — it has boundary issues. It doesn’t matter much with Celia Weston, who plays Ronnie’s drunken mom and who’s an overbearing actress from any distance. But to see a gifted caricaturist like the wonderful Anna Faris turned into a bleary mask of tears and snot, or a palette of cheap make-up, is to feel the director’s willingness to trash his actors. The only cast member who escapes is sweet, toothy Collette Wolfe as a born-again counter girl in the mall food court. She’s a little ray of unaffected sunshine whenever she appears.
Rogen may think his commitment to Ronnie’s violence and delusions of courage show his willingness to go all the way. He should be careful. A comic who occupies as much space as Rogen does here can easily come off as a threat. When Jackie Gleason used to shake his fist at Audrey Meadows and declare “to the moon, Alice!,” he always made it clear that his voice was the only thing he was going to raise to her. And in “Knocked Up,” when Rogen left a threatening phone message for the obstetrician who wasn’t around when Katharine Heigl went into labor, the scene worked because it came out of his solicitude for his pregnant girlfriend, and contrasted with the schlubby sweetness he showed elsewhere.
Nearly everything Rogen does in “Observe and Report” is threatening, annoying, taunting, cloddish. Hill shoves his camera in the actor’s face so his double chin wobbles in rage, and generally brings out the worst in his lead. Hill’s notion of pushing the comic envelope is to be obnoxious. But the calculation is pathetically obvious. When Ronnie is pounding away on top of a blitzed Brandi, a puddle of puke on the pillow next to her, Hill is very careful to give Faris a line to indicate Brandi is conscious. But why? What’s a date rape joke in a movie that flaunts how outrageous it is? It’s no surprise Hill views his characters with snotty superiority. If he didn’t, the boob behind the cameras would be indistinguishable from the boobs in front of it.