Make no mistake about it: this film is off its rocker. It is nearly as nuts as its main character. But that is its radical, chaotic joy. Not many films dare to shift tones so wildly, to depict psychosis possibly at the peril of its comic stride. Observe and Report goes for broke, and it's a deranged piece of genius.
The easy, consistent tag for the film is, "An R-rated Paul Blart." And...yeah, it sort of is. But the extent to which this film lets its freak flag fly is remarkable. I've talked before about the difference between "true punk rock" and "poser punk rock"--the true punks aim to carve out their own place, while the posers stand preening with a scowl on their face. Observe and Report is real punk--it wants to fuck things up, turn them inside out.
Seth Rogen plays Ronnie Barnhardt, the "Mall Cop"...but he isn't just a guy with humble dreams who eats his feelings. He's a bi-polar, power-hungry freak with violent tendencies. Rogen is fearless in nearly everything he does, and as Ronnie is at his most fearless; he is completely different from anything we've seen before. He is not playing Seth Rogen...he's playing a nut-job loser on a mission. The actor's new, streamlined look makes it easy for me to congratulate him on letting himself appear at his fattest and most ugly in this film, which was the right choice for this very singularly tacky character.
In a nutshell, Ronnie takes his job all too seriously, is obsessed with the skanky department store makeover artist (Anna Faris), has an impossibly alcoholic mother (the great Celia Weston), and wants to join the police force so he can bust some heads open. But he's crazy, so he can't join the police...and that's about all you need to know. From there, the movie goes off the rails, and I mean that in the best way possible. It would be easy to say the movie is a mess, because it is. But all these choices were intentional. This is off-the-wall filmmaking at its most aggressive; it is at once funny, tense, sad, and completely, eerily awkward. You will either revolt at first sight, or you will feel the rush. I felt it all the way.
The film was written and directed by Jody Hill, who first directed last year's indie-sleeper comedy, The Foot Fist Way. That film was a godsend for bringing the genius of Danny McBride to the masses, but overall was a sloppy, stupid little movie that started out funny and turned into a long, unfunny, misogynistic bit of crudeness as it went along. With a track record like that, Observe and Report is kind of a revelation for Hill. It stays true to the anarchic spirit (and in reality, it rachets up the anarchy level quite a bit) of the earlier film, but is a huge stylistic boost in every way. This guy can actually make movies, and well--the synergy Hill finds in telling this gonzo story, isolating random moments of hilarity, hitting the right adrenaline cues, and fusing music with image is startling in its proficiency. The movie has a rhythm all its own, and for me it worked on nearly every level.
**BONUS ANALYSIS** (mild spoiler warning)
There is actually an ongoing war of opinions going on over this film among critics and audiences alike: is all this stuff really happening, or is this just a portrait of an irredeemably psychotic mind on overdrive? Is the film a subversion of the "Apatow Brand" of lovable losers who start as bad boys but then learn their lesson, or is its own wacky construction? Is the film misogynistic and hateful, or is its extreme humor a gonzo commentary on the nastiness of a certain segment of the population? Most important of all, is this stuff funny, or is it merely uncomfortable garbage?
My answers: any film this cracked could easily be interpreted as a crazy character's delusion. In the case of Observe and Report, I tend to think it would be a cop-out to suggest that the film's third act, or nutty finale, or whatever portion of the movie is "all in Ronnie's head." Such a construct, unless it's pulled off brilliantly, is very nearly as soulless and empty as the ever-infuriating "it was all a dream" bullshit. Observe and Report is completely off its hinges. The film isn't some psychotic character's delusion, but it is a fever dream through-and-through. Everything that happens in the film could possibly exist in the reality of the movie, because the movie constructs a world in which anything, no matter how barbed, uncomfortable, or offensive, is possible. Typically I recoil when a film so unabashedly celebrates nastiness, but in Observe and Report, the filmmakers and the actors intend not to "celebrate nastiness," per se, but to celebrate the glorious experimental realms of extreme filmmaking. The filmmakers and the actors don't try to moralize, empathize, or sugarcoat anything. If they were to hedge, to shift from psychotropic, antisocial farce to redemptive, soft-spotted hero comedy, I would be offended--don't try to pretend that anything in this film can be redeemed. In Observe and Report, nothing is redeemed, and it's all the more effective because of it.
Regarding the bit about subverting Apatow: I don't think this movie is intended as a subversion of anything other than typical audience expectations. If that now includes Apatow's brand of raunch-redeemed-by-sweetness, then so be it. Was it meant to be a stark contrast to the warm-and-fuzzy security Apatow provides fat, lonely pot-smokers? Not necessarily, but it succeeds in that vein without even trying. Adventureland is more the sweet, funny, wonderful upending of everything Apatow has come to represent simply by doing what Apatow used to be great at--telling sweet stories with lots of heart. Observe and Report would sooner shoot an Apatow character in the foot than try to subvert one. And I like that. There are no apologies made for a crude, hateful character like Ronnie...and that's the way it should be. Ronnie is essentially a character without an arc--he learns nothing, never changes, and the only part of him that experiences any "growth" throughout the entire movie is in his pants. Maybe that should offend me as a lover of film; maybe I should be craving rich character arcs or dramatic twists. But I find the lack of any redeemable qualities one of the freshest, most interesting, diabolically humorous aspects about the film. Hill allows his characters to stay true to their convictions...Apatow would allow Ronnie to run rip-shod for an hour or so, and then pull back and try to turn him into a lovable hero.
Thankfully, that is not Observe and Report's M.O. It is hardcore, balls-to-the-wall, freak-nasty for 86 straight minutes. It is, to quote the best line from a movie I didn't like (guess what it is), "Scorsese on coke." And for me, that's pretty damn great.