Movie Review: Seth Rogen's So Not Funny in 'Observe and Report'

Seth Rogen stars as a mall security cop attempting to bring a flasher to justice and woo a woman (Anna Faris) who works at the make-up counter. Video by Warner Bros.
By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 10, 2009

Having established himself as a very likable presence in "Knocked Up" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and as a writer ("Superbad") and a cartoon voice ("Monsters vs. Aliens"), Seth Rogen came to a figurative clearing in the woods. Before him, one path led to goodness and light, stoner comedies like "Pineapple Express" and a career as one of the smart, funny guys in movies. The other led the way to darkness and perdition, vulgar exploitation and drooling idiot laughter. Rogen considered his choice. And then he jumped off a cliff.

What cliff, you ask? The comedy precipice that is "Observe and Report," a movie guaranteed to leave innocent audiences scratching their heads with popcorn-buttery fingers. What is this thing? We were expecting a giggle. Instead, we get the lighter side of "Taxi Driver" and a hero who's a hybrid of Barney Fife and Norman Bates.

"O&R" is thematically akin to the recent "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," and in fact the Rogen film has been described as a "darker" version of the goofy Kevin James movie. But that sounds like studio spin. Rogen is playing a delusional, violent, sexist, racist, homophobic mall cop with a bipolar disorder, so there's not really a lot to laugh at. In fact, how the movie got made at all is going to remain one of those mysteries, like decaffeinated coffee, or little ships in bottles. In other words, you'll wonder. But not for long.

Demented, unfunny and yet somehow perversely fascinating, "Observe and Report" must have been conceived by writer-director Jody Hill ("The Foot-Fist Way") as the next logical step in the ubiquitous loser-comedy genre -- losers of the like portrayed by Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, the late Chris Farley, Jerry Lewis, and the entire male repertory company of producer Judd Apatow ("Talladega Nights," "40-Year-Old Virgin"). The losers in question, however, always possess some modicum of charm -- see "I Love You, Man" -- to keep them from being as repulsive as they might be in real life. Not Ronnie Barnhardt.

As head of security at the soul-crushing Forest Ridge Mall, Ronnie (Rogen) personifies all the rent-a-cop cliches: delusions of grandeur, gun-nuttiness, a burning desire to be a real detective. He browbeats his subordinates and sexually harasses Brandi (Anna Faris), the so-obviously-uninterested fragrance counter clerk. When a flasher starts showing his stuff in the mall parking lot, Ronnie decides he's in charge of the case, much to the consternation of the real detective, Harrison (Ray Liotta). It isn't funny; it's embarrassing, but as Hollywood has been programming audiences for years to equate humiliation with humor, this will likely be just fine with some. Others will find Ronnie totally unsympathetic. A character you don't care about. A character you don't want to be around. If he were your neighbor, you'd move.

It becomes clear, as the hapless Ronnie makes his way through romantic and professional disasters, that Hill is out to do something new. But it would have taken far more wit than Hill possesses to counter the effects of the violence in "Observe and Report," or Ronnie's charmlessness, or the fact that the ostensible object of fun in this film is mentally handicapped: Ronnie's liquerswilling mother (a smart Celia Weston) tells him his father left them because of Ronnie's "special needs"; during an interview at the police academy, he admits to a horrified psychologist not only that he's bipolar, but that he dreams of an end-of-the-world scenario involving children and shotguns. Inspired by his love for Brandi, he decides to go off his meds, at which point anything is likely to happen. What does is so ridiculously violent and uncomedic that you might just laugh, but only out of shock and awe. If only Wes Craven had directed "Observe and Report." It would have been a lot funnier.

Observe and Report (86 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence, drugs, rampant vulgarity, sex, nudity.

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