With the outsize box office success of Paul Blart: Mall Cop, you can be excused for entering Observe and Report expecting sloppy seconds. In this version, a pudgy Seth Rogen wears the tin badge of weaponless courage previously pinned on a pudgy Kevin James. But it'll take only about three minutes before the unnerving truth sets in: Observe and Report is as bleakly, exhilaratingly furious as Paul Blart is squarely comforting. And from here on in, it's time to forget the Kevin James vehicle (no matter how similar some of the pair's superficial plot mechanics) and focus on the profound madness and sadness that fuels this risky, riotous, moody-blue comedy written and directed by Jody Hill.
Shorn of his cute curls and ditching most traces of the shaggy sweetness that served him in Knocked Up and Monsters vs. Aliens, Rogen plays Ronnie Barnhardt, head of security at generic Forest Ridge Mall. Ronnie is a hard-ass stickler on the job, and a lonely guy off duty with a million reasons why. He's got bipolar disorder, which keeps him from fulfilling his dream of becoming a real cop. (There's none of Blart's benign hypoglycemia as an excuse for failure here.) He lives with his mother (Celia Weston), a pass-out-cold alcoholic as clammy as Blart's mom is fuzzy. He's got a crush on a trampy makeup-counter clerk named Brandi (Anna Faris), who disdains him with all the obnoxiousness available to a drink-pounding tease flashing cleavage and lip gloss. But he's blind to the shy interest shown by a nice food-court barista (Collette Wolfe) regularly berated by her boss for laziness when, really, it's only her broken leg that's slowing her down. (A metaphor for America? Why not.)
Ronnie's a man simmering to a boil Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle is a spiritual brother and his scalding spillover moment arrives when a flasher in a regulation flasher's raincoat goes on a rampage, traumatizing mall customers (which is bad enough) and then exposing his junk to Brandi (which, to Ronnie, is even worse). A hard-boiled detective (Ray Liotta) shows up to take charge of the investigation, but Ronnie sees this criminal hunt as his mission. With everything to prove to Brandi, to the cop academy that rejected him in the first place, and to his own pharmaceutically managed sense of autonomy the competition to nab the perv is on.
Director Hill previously demonstrated his unique comedic ability to screw with American normalcy in the great, wack martial-arts movie The Foot Fist Way and co-created the warpy HBO series Eastbound & Down. To his credit, he leads Observe and Report down every alley a mainstream comedy is supposed to avoid. The violence is bone-crunching. (Pineapple Express, directed by David Gordon Green, celebrated the same aesthetic of brutality, and no wonder: Hill and Green share an alumni brotherhood at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, as well as the amazing gimlet eye of cinematographer Tim Orr on both projects.) Women are depicted as skanks and slatterns. Ethnicity and sexual orientation are freely mocked. Unrepentant drinking and drugging go unchastised. The flasher flaps vigorously and often yes, that's a penis I see before me leading to a chase scene through the mall that makes the naked wrestling set piece in Borat look coy. The result is a crazy mosaic of Americana with tiles scattered and missing. Need I observe and report that the view isn't for every taste? It sure is for mine.
Meanwhile, the cast, led by Rogen, chomps into all this anarchy as if liberated from the Hollywood salt mines, with a commitment to the material worthy of a tribute from James Lipton. Faris, adored these days for her specialty depiction of faux bimbos, has no qualms making her Brandi a bitch rather than a more acceptably cartoonish beyotch. The superb character actor Celia Weston (In the Bedroom) is truly breathtaking as Ronnie's boozer mom. The supporting cast, including Hill's regular muse and comedic co-conspirator, Danny McBride, and Hill's game film-school pal Randy Gambill as the flasher, never flinch from going exactly where you're bound to say, Oh no, they wouldn't.
Oh yes, they do. A–