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Mall warts
by Syd M
April 16, 2009 01:00 AM | 0 0 comments | 2 2 recommendations | email to a friend | print
"Weird" and "unexpected" are good things in a comedy, and they are good things in Observe and Report, a dark, bleak, violent comedy from writer/director Jody Hill (The Foot Fist Way). Hill has said that Observe and Report was inspired by Taxi Driver. Hill is no Scorsese and Seth Rogen is no DeNiro; but Ronnie Barnhardt, the mall cop in the middle of Observe and Report, acts like a guy who maybe coulda seen in Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle a role model of sorts. Ronnie likes guns. He fancies himself a defender of justice and helpless women. He has bipolar disorder (or so he says) and pops prescription meds all day, but he still toggles rapidly between sweetness and rage. He lives in a trailer with his loving but inept alcoholic mom (Celia Weston).

As security chief of Forest Ridge Mall, Ronnie's a petty dictator who rules with an iron fist and a Taser. He experiences a crisis of leadership when a classically trenchcoated serial flasher stalks the mall, exposing himself to hapless customers in the parking lot. When the flasher flashes Brandi (Anna Faris), a vain, cruel, slutty cosmetics counter salesgirl and the object of Ronnie's unrequited affection, the long-simmering mall cop boils over. It gets worse when the mall calls in a real cop - hotheaded Detective Harrison - to catch the pervy perp. Mutual hatred, professional rivalry and escalating violence follow - and that's just between Ronnie and Harrison.

Observe and Report is a misanthropic, foul-mouthed, politically incorrect, deepest-dark comedy; it mocks everyone and likes no one. It has that in common with the work of the Coen brothers, but it is much looser and far less stylized (one might say sloppier and more anarchic, too). It is also sadder and more weirdly melancholy; the characters in Observe and Report are not so much stupid as they are petty, mean and profoundly insecure.

Behind his tin badge, Ronnie is full of bravado and contempt, but he's also unexpectedly competent. "Overkill" would seem to be his personal motto, but loneliness and insecurity are his demons. His mall security team includes his lisping right-hand man Dennis (Michael Peña), who harbors his own dark, dank secrets, and gun-worshipping twins John and Matt Yuen (played by twins John and Matt Yuan).

The mall's equal-opportunity offenders include the foul-mouthed vendor Ronnie calls Saddamn (Aziz Ansari), pesky, vandalizing skateboarders and the zombielike consumers Ronnie has vowed to observe and protect. And then there's that flasher (Randy Gambill), whose proud, mall-wide display of his wobbly junk is a reminder of Borat's misdeeds - and of those days, not so long ago, when male full frontal nudity was strictly verboten in R-rated entertainments, let alone malls.

The mall, it turns out, is a teeming cesspool of sex, drugs and violence: a veritable bedlam disguised as a tranquil shoppers' paradise. Ronnie is its self-appointed, self-important protector, and Rogen does a fine job of roughing up the soft, pudgy edges of his generally affable, likable screen persona, replacing the usual tomfoolery with a streak of brutality - all of which makes Observe and Report an unjokey, uncartoony, moody comedy that's funnier than it ought to be, specifically because it's also sometimes deeply disturbing, surprising and unsafe.

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