Jody Hill's ambiguous and unsettling film is a comedy about law enforcement in much the same way that Martin Scorsese's TheKing of Comedy is a comedy about comedy. It's not so much entertainment as seductive pathology, ingratiating the audience with its familiar gross-out comedy tropes but skewing the tone so that some viewers will lose their bearings or their patience or both. But it's worth your while to make the adjustment, because in lieu of cheap laughs the film offers the deeper insight of anarchic hilarity.
VIDEO: The trailer for Observe and Report
Not that it seems to be heading that way in the beginning. Although the opening-credit sequence — a time-lapse, jump-cut montage of foot traffic at the Forest Ridge Mall — suggests some of the derangement of the senses to come, what immediately follows seems like outtakes from Paul Blart: Mall Cop.
Shot from behind, a man in a raincoat jogs through the mall parking lot and shows his wares to shocked female shoppers. That infuriates head of security Ronnie Barnhardt (a clean-shaven Seth Rogen, who looks like Will Ferrell's sensitive younger brother). He lambastes his crew, who resemble rejects from Police Academy, for their laxity. But he enjoys being interviewed by local news crews — until the attention shifts to a real cop, Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta). Harrison is brought in to solve the case after Brandi (Anna Faris), the trashy make-up-counter girl who's the object of Ronnie's unrequited love, is victimized. And that really gets Ronnie's goat.
Throw in a drunken mother (Celia Watson) and the film's set-up rates about one Amigo on the Three Amigos scale of dumb comedies. But the premise soon becomes irrelevant, because as a throw-away shot of a prescription bottle indicates, there's more to Ronnie than just another idiot in a uniform. Like Travis Bickle, he's into firearms, and he also fancies himself a bit of a samurai with a collapsible baton. So when Harrison, tired of Ronnie's kibitzing, dumps him off in the town's crack-dealing district, what ensues takes him, and the audience, a little by surprise.
Around this time, Ronnie decides to go off his meds, and so does the movie. Evoking his hero's erratic consciousness with blackout screens and a choppy narrative, Hill sets up seemingly standard comic situations and subverts the punch lines. In one such confrontation, a character hides behind a door in order to get a laugh at another character's humiliation. A few minutes into the scene, the eavesdropper shuffles out and says, "I thought this was going to be kind of funny. But it's actually kind of sad."
He's not the only one put off balance. On the other hand, sequences that might otherwise seem sad or ugly are disturbingly funny. Ronnie's vomit-strewn night with Brandi gets the audience laughing, until people realize that what they're watching is kind of like date rape. And a mall-trashing bliss montage with Ronnie's creepily sycophantic second-in-command (Michael Peña with a Mike Tyson lisp) combines the pathos of Bad Santa with the twisted glee of Dawn ofthe Dead.
Neither is the flasher, who might embody Ronnie's tormented id, forgotten. Observe and Report does not shrink from exposing its soul in all its unlovely nakedness. Like Me Myselfand Irene without the sentimentality, it's a comedy with the courage of its lack of conviction.