Apparently, the shopping mall is this generation’s version of hell on earth. (I love the smell of Bath and Bodyworks in the morning?) How else to explain the fact that there have been two movies about mall cops within the span of two months? I mean, even if you believe that some sort of studio espionage was involved, that still means that somewhere out there were two mall cop scripts, and the second one just got greenlit a little bit faster to keep up with the competition.
In my review of Paul Blart: Mall Cop, I called it simply too depressing to be funny. Paul Blart was such a pathetic loser I found myself cringing more often than laughing (the fact that the jokes weren’t funny didn’t help). ButObserve and Report makes Paul Blart look like an episode of Dora the Explorer. If Paul Blart merely hints at something grim and disturbing, Observe and Report gleefully rampages the dark side. It is, fitfully at least, quite funny. But I found myself wondering, “What’s the point?”
Seth Rogen, sporting an intentionally unflattering militaristic brushcut, plays Ronnie Barnhardt, the head of security at Forest Ridge Mall. Ronnie takes meds for being bipolar and—like Blart—has delusions of grandeur. The difference is that Barnhardt is truly violent and unstable. This puts the audience in a strange bind. Ronnie is our nominal hero—and he’s played by a likeable, baby-faced actor who we’ve grown to love—but he’s actually a pretty scary dude. Luckily, he doesn’t carry a gun (most of the time), but that doesn’t keep him from going to the shooting range with his mall buddies (he’s an expert marksman) and fantasizing about blowing away baddies with a Glock.
The action kicks off when a flasher terrorizes the mall parking lot. Ronnie is determined to catch the guy and butts heads with a real cop, played by Ray Liotta.
What makes Observe and Report run is its brazen lack of political correctness. “Am I the reason Dad left?” Ronnie asks his perpetually drunk mother (Celia Weston, who’s very funny). “Definitely,” she responds after a brief pause.
Later, we see that Ronnie has been profiling a mall employee, who is possibly Middle Eastern. “He thinks I’m going to blow up the Chick-fil-A,” the employee complains. “Why would I do that? It’s [freaking] delicious.”
Oh yeah, the F-bombs fly fast and furious in Observe and Report. I haven’t heard this much profanity since the early days of Tarantino. It’s also almost as violent as a Tarantino film (mostly Ronnie stabbing, shooting, and beating the stuffing out of people). And if you think you’re getting out of the theater without seeing our pudgy mall flasher in all of his glory, you haven’t been paying attention.
I can see Observe and Report becoming a cult hit, particularly among college kids who will appreciate its sheer audacity—the way it takes cuddly movie cliches (a heart to heart talk with a mom; a moment of male bonding; a date with a dreamgirl, in this case played by Anna Farris) and turns them into something vile and profane. On the other hand, a few people actually walked out on my screening. I get that, too, but I’m not that thin-skinned.
Bottom line: Observe and Report definitely made me laugh. And I even appreciate the fact that good comedy often thrives in that hard-to-define space between slightly irresponsible and truly dangerous. But at the risk of sounding overly pious, would the story of a reckless and delusional loser with violent tendencies be funny in the aftermath of a Columbine-like disaster? Yeah, that’s what I thought, too.