“It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time” is a series that focuses on movies that either have a bad critical reputation, bombed in the box office or serve as guilty pleasures. It will largely focus on genre movies, though I will venture outside of that area
When people think of Seth Rogen, they think of a likeable goofball. A well meaning stoner who can always make you laugh and whose movies are produced by and/or directed by Judd Apatow. Granted, they had worked together in the past with the short lived but acclaimed sitcom, “Undeclared” in the early 2000’s. It wasn’t until Rogen got a supporting role in “The 40 Year Old Virgin” and his starring role in “Knocked Up” that he finally warmed his way into the hearts of America.
When you look at it like that, it’s easy to understand why Jody Hill’s 2009 black comedy, “Observe and Report,” shocked and dismayed audiences and critics upon its release. Instead of the loveable slacker character Rogen was known and loved for, the film went towards much darker territories. Said territories could be described as “Travis Bickle: Mall Cop,” but it was a change few were anticipating or wanted at the time.
Rogen stars as Ronnie, a mall security cop who is obsessed with finding a trench coat wearing pervert (Randy Gambill) and bringing him to justice. He’s not alone of course. Along for the ride are Dennis (Michael Peña), a man who harbors a fondness for hard drugs and violence; brothers John and Matt Yuen (played by twins-um, John and Matt Yuen), who as Ronnie says “If one of you dies, God gave me another one”; and Charles (Jesse Plemmons, who you may know from “Friday Night Lights” and “The Master”), who is the only guy that seems to be a bit disturbed when it comes to Ronnie.
Ronnie’s quest to find the serial flasher runs into two road bumps. The first is Brandi (Anna Farris), a girl who works at the cosmetics department whose low morale and tendency towards binge drinking and pill popping doesn’t seem to bother Ronnie too much. In fact, he’s a bit smitten with her. The other is Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta), whose investigation of the mall flasher annoys Ronnie to no end. In his mind, it’s his destiny to find this guy. Who is this chump (re: man actually qualified for the job) to intervene?
Well, Harrison himself is kind of a dick bag as well. When he finds Ronnie hiding in his car, he leaves the mall cop in one of the roughest parts of the neighborhood to get killed. Things don’t go Harrison’s way though, because Ronnie beats a group of thugs (one played by Danny McBride, who previously starred in Hill’s, “The Foot Fist Way”) to death with his nightstick, then brings a kid who offered him crack to the police station whilst hurling violent insults at him. In the process, he thinks it’s time that he got a real job with the police force instead of living life in mall security. If there’s anything more scary than a sociopath that’s a mall cop, it’s one that wants to carry a real badge.
Up until now, we’ve known that Ronnie isn’t that right in the head. His upbringing from a severely alcoholic mom (Celia Weston), who is not afraid to tell her own son that he was an accident, lends itself to that trait. The moment he kills a group of thugs immediately takes the film from typical Hollywood comedy about a man child to a bleakly comic look at a sociopath with delusions of grandeur. This is even further hammered home in the film’s most controversial scene, in which Ronnie date rapes Brandi in her sleep after a date. He doesn’t know what he’s doing is incredibly fucked up, and the fact that Brandi says, “don’t stop,” whilst asleep without a clue as to what’s really happening makes it all the more unnerving.
Watching “Observe and Report”, it’s kinda amazing that Warner Bros. actually gave this a wide release. There are certainly funny moments (a high point being Ronnie and a lecherous perfume salesman (Aziz Ansari) having a competition over who can say “fuck you” the most made me laugh hard), but most of the laughs are of the uncomfortable kind. Scenes such as Ronnie’s psych evaluation test and Harrison and his cohorts trying to humiliate him by letting him know he didn’t pass are more disturbing and depressing than they are funny.
“Observe and Report” came out the same year as another major studio comedy about a mall cop in “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” starring Kevin James. To tell the truth, I prefer the former to the latter. “Paul Blart” is nothing more than typical pap made by Adam Sandler’s production company that has no real ambitions and barely even bothers to tell jokes, instead thinking it can rely on James’ physical comedy to carry it. “Observe and Report” is a different, ballsier beast that at times feels like a refutation of the kind of moronic man children Sandler and co. present. Ronnie is the exact opposite, and probably feels more realistic than those characters – a violent, disturbed individual whose delusions make him more terrifying than they do endearing. Even when he gains something resembling redemption at the end, it feels like a hollow victory. At the end of the day, he’s still the same pathetic monster he always has been and always will be.
Thankfully, the cast and writing keeps the movie from being too depressing. Rogen knows what Ronnie is, and even in his more human moments, offers up a portrait of a pathetic man who can’t catch a break even when he thinks he has. Farris is hilarious though, as she delivers a shameless performance of a trashy girl who drinks booze like water and pops pills like they were Tic-Tacs. The fact that her life is as well put together as Ronnie’s speaks volumes about her. With the exception of Collette Wolfe as a kind worker at a coffee shop whom has a crush on Ronnie, nobody here is sympathetic, and that’s quite fitting here. Like “Taxi Driver,” this is a tale of God’s Lonely Man (a sociopath) who is obsessed with doing the right thing, even though his intentions behind the right thing are pretty fucked up, and the world around him isn’t much better.
Thankfully, Hill (who also wrote the screenplay) understands the importance of comedic absurdity, and manages to get away with plenty of funny moments. The first time we meet the men who work with Ronnie is pretty amusing, though John and Matt Yuen in particular made me laugh – there’s just something about their matter of fact delivery and attitude that does it for me. Weston is also great as Ronnie’s mother. Nearing the end, when she tells her son she’s going to stick with beer from now on for him, it does the kind of thing good dark humor should do – looking at the abyss with a bit of a laugh and a pinch of despair.
Audiences and critics (well, some critics – it actually got mixed reviews) didn’t care for “Observe and Report” when it came out. As I said earlier, they are more accustomed Seth Rogen: star of “Pineapple Express” and “This Is the End” than they are “Seth Rogen: Violent Vigilante.” However, I can’t help but applaud this movie. It’s a brave dark comedy that dares its audience to laugh at the tale of a man who seems more likely to kill a bunch of people than save them. It’s a movie that manages to both make me laugh and send chills of fear down my spine. The fact that it has such an effect on me can’t be lost on everyone, and someday, its reputation will hopefully look better.
Next Time: John Travolta’s passion project becomes a national punchline.