Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) is a mall cop who takes his job way too seriously. He has mental health problems, a gun, and an obsessive crush on a make-up counter girl (Anna Farris). His ‘professional’ mission is to catch a stripper terrifying shoppers at the mall.
Observe and Report (2009) has all of the standard frat boy humour you’d expect from a Seth Rogen led comedy. This isn’t quite his usual fare however and the laughs are decidedly uncomfortable. Ronnie isn’t a nice guy but one with delusions of grandeur and a very dark and unhealthy perspective on life. Throw a tiny amount of power his way, and he’ll take it much too far.
This isn’t a heart-warming comedy and it doesn’t have goofy but likeable characters. Instead the film follows a group of decidedly unpleasant characters and although Observe and Report is actually quite funny the jokes are on the characters themselves. The dark and downbeat tone is perhaps best summed up in the second act. Ronnie, idealistic and naively hopeful that he could become a police officer, sits in an office waiting for the results of his application. An unpleasant police detective Harrison (a bully really, played by Ray Liotta) delivers the news that Ronnie will never be a police officer. Ronnie’s psychological profile hints at a very dangerous personality disorder. Ronnie takes the news badly and at that point another police detective emerges from a cupboard he’s been hiding in, “Sorry, I thought this was gonna be funny but it’s actually sad.”
This is perhaps the best comment on the tone of Observe and Report and it succinctly sums up the overarching narrative. Ronnie’s life is funny because it’s an absolute train wreck. There are a number of disturbingly twisted scenes – one that specifically springs to mind involves Anna Farris and some questionable sexual activities. Ronnie is a dangerous man and the scariest part is how unaware he seems to be. He does have one guiding principle: justice. This he will try and enforce in whatever way he can and no one is above the law, not even a bunch of kids skating outside the mall.
Jody Hill (Eastbound and Down, The Foot Fist Way) wrote and directed Observe and Report and it’s very like his other work. He places the narrative within the perspective of the protagonist and shows their world to the audience. In Observe and Report this puts audiences in the mind of a lunatic and it’s not a very pleasant glimpse of a subjective reality. Ronnie is a thug, full of insecurities and self-loathing, and he’s likely to take it out on whoever is nearest.
Ronnie thinks he’s important
Ronnie thinks of himself as a hardened cop (read any action hero from the eighties) and there are some amusing scenes centred on this concept. The story follows Ronnie attempting to crack his ‘case’ – a flasher has been frequenting the parking lot. Ronnie is determined to get to the bottom of it and catch the culprit. To Ronnie this will serve as a kind of validation and he believes it will help him to get the girl.
The final chapter of the film is fully in Ronnie’s twisted psyche and the epic ‘battle’ to solve the case becomes increasingly brutal. Seth Rogen manages to convey Ronnie’s mental health issues well and it marks a distinctly different tone too much of his other work. Rogen often plays the same sort of character in his films and we all know the type – a lovable, noisy stoner. Ronnie in Observe and Report couldn’t be more different and Rogen is completely out of his comfort zone similar to the position Observe and Report puts audiences in.
Seth Rogen’s Observe and Report
But Seth Rogen makes this role his own and Observe and Report is amusing, disturbing, and awkward to watch. The movie revels in violence, eighties action movie tropes, and at its core it’s a difficult drama about mental health issues. However this is all masked by the odd and twisted humour infused by writer/director Jody Hill. Ronnie Barnhardt is a man terrifyingly sure of himself and this theme is reflected in Observe and Report. Is it any good? It’s hard to tell, but it’s a frenetic, action packed, and brutal journey. The comedy whilst awkward is funny and Ronnie shows us a world where he sees black and white, right and wrong as things he has to enforce – you’d do well to stay out of his way.
Observe and Report shouldn’t work but it does and in a similar vein to The Cable Guy, it’s destined for comedy cult status.