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Non-Review Review: Observe and Report

It seems that, despite Watchmen and Avatar, 2009 may not have been the year of the almost completely naked blue people. Between Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Observe and Report, it was the year of the shopping mall security officer. There was a lot of discussion branding this as the ‘grown up’ Paul Blart movie. If ‘grown up’ means in awful taste and incredibly soul-destroyingly depressing while featuring a heap of sex, violence and drug use, then yes – this is a grown up film. And when it works, it does beautifully. But it simply doesn’t work consistently enough.

Ronnie really needs to 'cop' on to himself... no?

The movie’s problem is a tonal one. On one hand it’s populated with larger-than-life characters like the deputy mall cop Dennis (complete with a gold chain and sunglasses) and the ridiculous notion that any mall anywhere would hire Ronnie as not only a security guard, but chief security guard. On the other hand it’s a down-and-dirty character-focused drama about how ridiculously crap Ronnie’s life and existence actually are. The two different styles of comedy don’t necessarily fit particularly well together and lead to a fairly large dissonance (most noticeable when Danny McBride cameos as a drug dealer, but plays the scene entirely straight). It’s hard to know exactly what the film is going for at any given moment – are we meant to be laughing at the ridiculousness of the concept or embarassed by the awkward attempts at interpersonal connection made by the bipolar Ronnie?

That said, when the movie works, it really works. There are several gut-bustingly hilarious sequences inspaced around the film, but these are interspaced amidst a whole host of truly awkward (and not necessarily in a funny way) scenes. The mood whiplash may leave the audience more than a little disorientated (as one character remarks about half-way through “I though this was going to be funny… but it’s actually just sad”). There is a lot of that running through the film.

Seth Rogan makes an interesting leading man. He is certainly trying. Undoubtedly it’s an attempt – as with many comedians before him – to burst out of the typecasting that they eventually find themselves in. The problem is that I am not entirely sure that this is the best role for this. Ronnie isn’t really that different from too many of Rogan’s other leading roles, apart from the fact that he is truly unlikeable, rather than simply a little unlikeable. To be fair to the script and to Rogan, they do manage to generate more than a fair amount of pathos around this strange little man with delusions of grandeur, but I’m really not blown away. I don’t think that much more of Rogan than I did yesterday. Maybe Green Hornet will help him escape the typecasting? You never know.

And speaking of typecasting, Rogan is surrounded by a large cast of actors playing against type. There’s serious dramatic actor Michael Pena (who you know from World Trade Centre, Lions for Lambs and Crash) playing a sleazy, weird-accented deputy named Dennis, never without a chain around his neck. There’s goofball comedic actress Anna Faris as the object of Ronnie’s affections, played almost completely straight and much darker than most of her roles. And there’s the always wonderful Ray Liotta playing an actual cop, bringing his rather mean dramatic chops to the party – and he works well because he’s playing within type, as a badass detective, even though he’s outside his comfort zone.

The movie’s humour is very, very dark (a good portion of the laughs are provided by people being hit with things), but it can generally carry it off. And, oddly enough, despite the fact that Ronnie is a completely unlikeable jerk (with a serious mental health issue, it should probably be added), we actually feel some of his pathos (“I’m so embarassed for him,” my brother declared at one point) – which is no small accomplishment given how downright mean the movie can be at times (and, though some of it is directed at Ronnie, a lot of it comes from Ronnie as well). When it works, it works and the audience laughs (sometimes feeling a little guilty about what it is laughing at, but still).

The problem is that the audience isn’t alway laughing. There are several ‘dry spells’ throughout the movie, between hilarious sequences. In fact, I remember those few sequences a lot better than I can remember the rest of the film. This, along with the movie’s somewhat bizarre combination or fantasy comedy with more character-based drama, makes it hard to ever really completely engage with. And that’s a shame, because this is a strange and different little movie, quite unlike anything I’ve seen in some time.

2 Responses

  1. Sadly, I seem to be one of the few that really enjoy this film, even upon repeated viewings. I have encountered so much dislike for it that I even wrote a half-assed review on my blog;

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