April 11, 2009 -- “Observe and Report” is a comedy so dark you have to turn on some lights to see the screen. Seth Rogen, the film's star, said during publicity appearances for this film that the character he plays in this film is not himself. If that's the case, he should have played himself. If he had, I might have left the theater feeling a lot better about spending money to see this turkey.
Seth Rogen, star of much funnier films, such as “Pineapple Express,” “Superbad,” “Knocked Up” and “The 40 Year Old Virgin” plays Ronnie Barnhardt, head of security at a mall. He is hard-working and conscientious to a fault and he takes his job very seriously. He is also on medication for bipolar disorder (manic depressive syndrome) and is crazy about guns. In one scene, while applying for a job as a police officer, he tells a psychiatrist of his fantasy of “saving” kids in danger in a school yard by killing everybody in sight with guns. Needless to say, he fails the psych evaluation. This is one of the few things in this movie that makes sense. How he became head of mall security is not explained. The film suffers from bad timing in its recurring theme of gun humor. During the past month or so, 57 people in the U.S. have lost their lives in eight mass shootings, killed by nutballs like Ronnie Barnhardt, the film's main character. The killing grounds include a nursing home, a center for new immigrants, a children's bedroom, a church, a college, a day care center. The friends and family of these victims would not be amused by this film's humor regarding gun-toting crazies.
Ronnie Barnhardt's greatest disappointment in his job as a mall cop is that he is not allowed to carry a gun on the job, but in the film he compensates by beating people up and using a tazer to render them helpless. In one scene, he even kills a pack of drug-dealers single-handedly, without using a gun. He proudly hauls a boy who had tried to sell him drugs into the police station for arrest, after killing the boy's father. This deadly encounter convinces Ronnie that he is a legitimate candidate for the police force. At last, he can carry a gun! Part of Ronnie's problem is that he sees himself as being a much more important person than he really is. In the film's opening scene he corrects a TV reporter who calls him a security guard. He says, with a volley of profanity, that he is head of mall security.
One day a flasher appears at the mall and Ronnie vows to catch the pervert. After the flasher strikes again, the police are called in and Ronnie meets his nemesis, detective Harrison (Ray Liotta of “Wild Hogs”). After Ronnie interfere's with Harrison's investigation, both men grow to hate each other deeply. Harrison is not alone. Another man who deeply hates Ronnie is an angry store owner (Eddie Rouse of “American Gangster”) who has a restraining order against him. It is hard to imagine how Ronnie would be allowed to keep his job when a merchant in the mall has successfully sought a restraining order against him, but that is just one of this film's many mysteries. Ronnie accuses the store owner of being the flasher based on two things: His hatred of the man and the dark color of his skin. Yes, in addition to Ronnie's other admirable qualities, he is also a bigot. In one unfunny scene, Ronnie and the store owner face off and curse each other, saying the same two words to each other over and over. It seemed to me this scene would never end.
Ronnie is the mall's Archie Bunker, only less eloquent. Even so, he has a Hispanic on his security staff, Dennis (Michael Peña of “Lions for Lambs”). He also has two Asian-Americans, brothers John and Matt Yuan, who play John and Matt Yuan in the movie, too, ha, ha. Their role in the movie is to look clueless. Dennis has a major role in the film, however. Dennis persuades Ronnie to abandon his principles and just have fun by breaking the law and busting the heads of some skateboarders. Dennis revels in his enjoyment of the outlaw life, but Ronnie can't follow his lead. Dennis is a bit like The Joker in The Dark Knight, while Ronnie is more like Batman, or Dirty Harry. Even though they don't see eye to eye on morality, Dennis admires Ronnie for his refusal to abandon the notion of justice.
The other major players in the film are Nell (Collette Wolfe of “Four Christmases,” who has the smallest nostrils I've ever seen on an adult woman) who works in the mall selling coffee and pastries, Brandi (Anna Faris of “The House Bunny,”) the mall sexpot who works at a cosmetics counter, and Ronnie's drunken mother, (Celia Weston of “Junebug”), who, like Nell, loves Ronnie despite his faults. Ronnie lusts after Brandi, but ignores Nell throughout much of the film, and hurts her feelings when he does talk to her. The brain-damaged Nell wants Ronnie anyway for some reason. Ronnie's mom is probably the most loveable character in the film because of her utter devotion to her son, despite her lack of self control.
During the whole film I was rooting for Ronnie to redeem himself somehow, but he never really does. Sure, he does some good things, but at the end of the film he is even more dangerous and irresponsible than he was at the beginning. He has become a lot like Travis Bickle, itching like a finger on the trigger of a gun. Now he is surrounded by enablers of his violent fantasies. At least he doesn't become a cop. Even detective Harrison, who is a real slouch as a cop, is far preferable to Ronnie. At least Harrison doesn't look like he would shoot everyone in sight, but he is menacing in the film's big fight scene, a free-for-all in the mall between the out-of-control Ronnie (off his medication) and about 50 cops. Maybe if Ronnie had become a cop, that would have at least been funny. Needless to say, I did not laugh much during this movie. I was very disappointed by it, even though I recognized that it was trying to satirize American society: Namely our bigotry, gun-worship, hero-worship and our love of violence and our glorification of Dirty Harry-style vigilante justice. This film violates one of my cardinal rules, and that is, “no moviemaker's artistic vision is worth the slightest amount of suffering by any member of any audience who is required to pay to see it.” I want my money back. This film rates a D.
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