Monday, April 13, 2009

Movie Review: Observe and Report

Observe and Report *** ½
Directed by: Jody Hill.
Written By: Jody Hill.
Starring: Seth Rogen (Ronnie Barnhardt), Ray Liotta (Detective Harrison), Michael Peña (Dennis), Anna Faris (Brandi), Dan Bakkedahl (Mark), Jesse Plemons (Charles), John Yuan (John Yuen), Matt Yuan (Matt Yuen), Celia Weston (Mom), Collette Wolfe (Nell), Randy Gambill (Pervert).

Observe and Report is a comedy about a lonely, delusional man who sees himself as some sort of hero, when in fact he is a sad, pathetic little man. He is a man who has been beaten down constantly by life, but doesn’t really seem to realize it. It is almost painful to watch him live his daily existence, seeing him rejected time and again without ever knowing that everyone sees him as pathetic.

Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) is bi-polar, taking pills every four to six hours to keep him from getting over hyper. He is the head of security for the local mall, and his team of security guards are loyal to him to the point of hero worship. When a flasher starts stalking around the parking lot, the police are called in, led by Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta), but Ronnie doesn’t think that they are doing enough to protect the workers and shoppers at the mall – especially not his beloved Brandi (Anna Faris), who works at the makeup counter. That she thinks Ronnie is pathetic loser is something that is lost on him. The affection shown to him by Nell (Collette Wolf), the new girl in the food court, is equally lost on him. In fact, there is not much that isn’t lost on Ronnie. He thinks of Harrison as his arch nemesis, when in fact Harrison is just annoyed by him. When he applies to the police academy, and goes for his psych exam and tells the woman he sees himself as a hero, and he wants to go out there and shoot some bad guys, he doesn’t understand why he fails the exam. When Harrison calls him in to give him the bad news, and brings his friend into watch, his friend leaves after a little while saying “I thought this would be funny. But really, it’s kind of sad”. I have a feeling that many audience members are going to feel the same way about the movie.

Writer/director Jody Hill walks a fine line in this movie. A little too far on one side, and all he’s doing is making fun and looking down on his characters. A little too far on the other side, and all the humor in the film is lost, and you have a deep, depressing drama. Hill didn’t get the right mix in his last film, The Foot Fist Way, which was overly cruel and nasty, but he strikes just the right tone this time. The film is often very funny, but it’s not the type of humor we expect from a Seth Rogen movie. Rogen plays his role straight in the film – and that makes it all the more funny, and painful, then it would have been otherwise. If he doesn’t take the character seriously, then the film falls apart. But Rogen plays his role brilliantly. He is supported by an excellent cast. Liotta follows Rogen’s lead also plays his role straight – he is worn out cop, just trying to do his job. He doesn’t want to hurt Ronnie, but is put in a situation where he pretty much has to. Michael Pena plays Ronnie’s right hand man, doing some sort of bizarre Luis Guzman impression, that is somehow appropriate. Faris plays her typical bimbo role, but brings a little more depth to it this time – there is a cruelty and malice behind her performance in the film that works.

The film owes an obvious debt to the work of Martin Scorsese – most notably Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Like the “heroes” in those movies, Ronnie has to endure rejection and humiliation at nearly every step of the movie. Like Bickle in Taxi Driver, it all seems to be leading up to the inevitable outburst of violence that Ronnie seems destined for. But for much of the movie, Ronnie lives more like Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy – living off his delusions of grandeur, almost deliberately misreading the other characters in the movie to feed off his own ego. When he realizes that everyone sees him as a pathetic loser, it is too much for him to bear. By the end of the movie, Ronnie seems to be right back where he started from – a ticking time bomb of rage that can go off at any time.

If I have made this movie sound more like a serious drama than a comedy, that’s because in many ways it is. It’s true that the moving is often hilarious, but it’s hilarious in that way that is almost too painful to watch – we laugh to keep from crying. Underlying all the comedy is a drama about a man simply doesn’t fit in, no matter how hard he tries. This is an impressive achievement.

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