Review: Observe and Report Never Quite Gets There

"The fact that this slips away like greasy spaghetti isn't the fault of anything more than a directionless plot."

 

Dark comedy is a difficult genre. The road is littered with failed attempts, and for every Cruel Intentions there are a few dozen Pushing Tin and Cable Guy efforts convincing studios not to fund them. Regardless of what the trailers tell you, Observe and Report wants very desperately to be a dark comedy. But it doesn't quite get there, as it's not funny enough to hit the comedy dismount and not clever enough to go fully dark. It's much more like pudding, actually -- soft, free of structure, and not very filling.

Seth Rogen is a mall security guard. To the film's credit the title is never used. Also to the film's credit is that this is just a story about a crazy dude. Rogen's Ronnie Barnhardt is a slightly stupid, partially mentally ill, and fully delusional fellow who can only be taken seriously in that he has moderate amounts of power to lord over consumers and fellow mall employees. He's joined in the cast by Anna Faris, playing a ditzy blonde, and Ray Liotta, as a hard-boiled detective. An essential cameo is turned in by Parks and Recreation's Aziz Ansari (who really should be a bigger star by now) while Collette Wolfe is also eminently watchable as a girl with a broken leg working at the donut shop. Every day she gives Rogen free coffee -- small scenes that work well at building both character and providing awkward laughs. The other highlight is the soundtrack, although it's used as an expository feature a bit too often. Still, as a standalone offering I'd recommend a listen. It's got a solid Bob Dylan cover, a good Pixies Cover, and a righteous 40-year-old track called "Brain" from '60s Brit band the Action that acquits itself well even against today's modern rock offerings.

The film falters when Observe and Report goes for the big laughs. It's not clear whether we should be sympathetic, horrified, or entertained. Vonnegut recommended having characters who wanted something so the audience could take the journey with them. What does Ronnie Barnhardt want? Well, he clearly wants to get laid. No surprise there, but that joke predates the written word. He kinda/sorta wants to be a police officer, and the script makes a halfhearted effort to show that side too. He'd like to be made fun of a little less, but this too comes in fits and starts. Unlike say, the clarity of 40-Year-Old Virgin (older gent wants to get laid!), Knocked Up (layage has happened, consequences ensue), or Superbad (young gents want to enjoy sexual relations!), Observe and Report has no real throughline, which creates distance from Rogen to the audience. It's a situation where it's easy to check out from the material. I'm not advocating more sex comedies, mind you, just a bit of focus where writer Jody Hill is concerned (as his other theatrical project, The Foot Fist Way, had the exact same issue).

So then, should you see this film? It's not tremendously disappointing if you haven't seen a comedy in a while and just need something to tide you over. But you're not going to get great quotes or belly laughs out of this action, and in two years this won't be mentioned at all. Ideally it will be considered one of Rogen's lesser works because I have high hopes for him. He's a convincing everyman, and in the right hands he gives an audience a ton to latch on to. The fact that this slips away like greasy spaghetti isn't the fault of anything more than a directionless plot.

Grade: C+