Observe and Report is the most relentlessly fascinating movie of 2009, a bleak and abrasive character study on par with that of Randy 'The Ram' Robinson in The Wrestler or Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. There's plenty to laugh at amidst the doom and gloom but it's miles beyond the gross-out comedy the ads attempted to portray, let alone the the fucking "Paul Blart knockoff" that the odious and intellectually lazy dismissed it as. It's an intoxicating examination of the latent sociopathy of the "hero," not quite Taxi Driver, but probably the most entertaining portrait of a fascist since the first Dirty Harry circa 1971.
The man is Ronnie Barnhardt, gun fanatic and head of security at Forest Ridge Mall. Where others see a banal string of shoe stores and fast food joints, Ronnie sees a battleground of good and evil, his iron rule the only thing standing between order and chaos for the smallfolk that go obliviously about their shopping. When a trenchcoat-clad flasher emerges, haunting the mall's parking lot and striking at random, it's all that's needed to push Ronnie to seek turning his fantasy of vanquishing evil and finally being acknowledged as a hero into bloody reality.
Although the flasher is the initial impetus that unites and introduces the major characters, he takes a frequent backseat to myriad subplots: there's a secondary crime spree, a burglar hitting the mall after dark. There's Ronnie's leering fixation on Brandi the makeup-counter clerk, an early victim of the flasher who Ronnie feels he must protect at all costs; this movie's stand-in for Taxi Driver's Jodie Foster. There's Ronnie's friendship with Nell the coffee girl. There's his efforts to join the police academy and become a true member of the force. And there's his struggle with bipolar disorder. The stories drift lackadaisically in and out of the narrative forefront through the flash-in-the-pan 86-minute runtime, but in a careful and calculated way that forms a very rich tapestry of the individual at their center.
In Ronnie's mind, he is a hero, and by natural extension, anyone who opposes him is a villain who must be punished with swift violence. This includes not just the usual suspects of drug dealers, thieves, and perverted flashers, but as his life spirals further out of control, loitering skateboarders, rude coworkers, parking violators, and eventually the police in an increasingly dark third act that flouts every convention of modern comedy. When you see the lengths that Ronnie will go to to become a "hero," you may find yourself disquieted by what you laughed at or even rooted for in the film's first act, which is nothing short of applause-worthy in a wide release Hollywood comedy - if the film can truly be called that.
Don't misunderstand; Ronnie's dense nature, social obliviousness, and the profane and vulgar world he exists in are much funnier than the vast majority of what Hollywood shits out en masse. But far more importantly, Observe and Report is a deconstruction of the manchild protagonist that dominates contemporary cinematic comedy.
We find it easy to laugh at the heightened absurdity of most of the protagonists played by Will Ferrell or Adam Sandler, or even Seth Rogen's dirty cop in Superbad, but the actual existence of someone so imbecilic, so immoral, so quick to anger and violence, and with such a black-and-white worldview would be immensely disturbing, which Ronnie Barnhardt is. To put it in nerdy Dungeons & Dragons terms, Ronnie is lawful evil, a fascist with profound delusions of grandeur, and Seth Rogen does a great job with the material. I wouldn't call it his funniest performance - that's probably still Knocked Up - but I do think it's probably his best, with Rogen nailing not only the unconventional punchlines but the violent and disturbing material as well.
He's surrounded by a mixture of some actors who play to the comedy, including Crash's melodrama king Michael Peña letting joyously loose, Celia Weston as his alcoholic mother, and Anna Faris as Brandi, and some actors who play things astoundingly straight, most notably Ray Liotta as the police officer who Ronnie gradually comes to see as his archenemy. Collette Wolfe is also utterly adorable as Nell the coffee girl and steals every scene she's in. I hope to see her in many future films.
Now, critics are not only lazy but proud of their laziness when it comes to reviewing comedy, and it goes without saying that lots of them missed the point, some even laughably complaining that Ronnie is disturbing to watch or a bad role model for kids (gee, ya think?!). But I don't blame them for the movie's soft box office reception - a comedy this black comes built with a very limited audience. But I found Observe and Report absolutely fascinating. It has a surefire spot on my top ten of 2009, and while I know it's not something everyone will enjoy, it's something wholly unique I think everyone should at least watch. It's a future minor classic.
4 Stars out of 5