Major studios like the idea of making dark-hearted, audacious comedies, but more often than not, these movies wind up going soft. The suits worry about alienating test audiences with “unlikable” characters, big stars don’t want to risk their fan base by taking things to an edgy place, and we generally wind up with films that start out with a bold concept but then water it down with life lessons and redemptions and general wishy-washiness.
And then, when we’re lucky, we get a movie like “Observe and Report.”
The trailers make it look like a movie you’ve seen a thousand times before, most recently under the title “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” — bumbling mall cop outsmarts the police and solves a crime in order to win the love of his lady. Trust me when I say that almost none of the story plays out quite that way.
Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) is a rent-a-cop — sorry, “Head of Mall Security” — at a run-of-the-mill shopping complex whose mundane existence is rocked when a flasher shows up in the parking lot, exposing himself to unsuspecting women, including make-up salesperson Brandi (Anna Faris), whom the nerdy and socially awkward Ronnie has long admired from afar.
And when I say “nerdy and socially awkward,” I don’t mean the kind of character Michael Cera usually plays, the shy frog waiting for the right girl to turn him into a prince. In this case, I mean the kind of creepy and inappropriate weirdo you’d cross the food court to avoid.
Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta) of the local police gets involved in the flasher investigation and then again later when someone robs the mall’s shoe store in the middle of the night. Ronnie first objects to this interference on his home turf, but he then decides to follow his dreams of becoming a real cop himself, a path that naturally leads to disaster, particularly since he gave all his klonazapam (prescribed to treat his bi-polar disorder) to a drunken Brandi.
Things go from bad to worse to violent and yet — as in last year’s “Pineapple Express,” which also starred Rogen — “Observe and Report” never stops being funny, even though you’ll find yourself squirming more and more over Ronnie’s cluelessly destructive behavior. (Not that those surrounding him are any better — Brandi’s an airhead substance abuser, and Detective Harrison is a vain jerk.)
There is some redemption to be found in the film, but never at the expense of the characters’ verisimilitude. Writer-director Jody Hill (“The Foot Fist Way,” “Eastbound & Down”) refuses to give us one of those sweeping, life-changing catharsis moments that always happen in the movies but never in real life; these people pretty much go on doing what they’ve always done and what they’re always going to do.
The cast — which also includes veteran character actress Celia Weston giving a hilarious but completely unsentimental performance as Ronnie’s drunken mom — is uniformly excellent, but this is Rogen’s show all the way.
He’s established himself as a fine comic actor in the last few years with charming star turns in films like “Knocked Up” and “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” but “Observe and Report” represents the biggest challenge Rogen has faced as a performer. He succeeds brilliantly at making us want to keep watching someone so deeply flawed and delusional; it’s a prickly, funcomfortable comic creation on par with what Ricky Gervais and Steve Carrell have done in the U.K. and U.S. versions of “The Office.”
Only this one’s got a gun.