One has to give writer-director Jody Hill credit for sticking to his peculiar comic vision. In the poverty-row “The Foot Fist Way,” he painted a portrait of an abrasive, self-centered, dense tae kwan do teacher whose lack of self-awareness is matched only by his brutish personality. Now he offers a story about an equally obnoxious, blockheaded but smug mall security guard with an imperious air, a penchant for violence and a very quick temper. In many respects the plot Hill inserts this character, Ronnie Barnhardt, into is very similar to the one recently constructed around Kevin James’s Paul Blart, involving a case the rent-a-cop gets obsessive over, possible romance with a mall clerk, a protective mother he lives with, a desire to be a real policeman, and a tense relationship with one. But tonally “Observe and Report” is about as far from the family-friendly slapstick and sentiment of “Mall Cop” as could be imagined. It’s “Paul Blart” with a nasty streak, a perverse kind of farce that most people will be more likely to recoil from than laugh at (though self-appointed “cool” ones will respond very differently).
Ronnie’s played by Seth Rogen, who’s convincingly peremptory and domineering in lording it over his underlings, obsequious Dennis (Michael Pena) and empty-headed, gun-loving twins John and Matt (John and Matthew Yuan) at a typical suburban mall. He’s chasing after a blonde floozie named Brandi (Anna Faris) who works at the cosmetics counter and ridicules him, while ignoring Nell (Collette Wolfe), the sweet girl with an injured ankle who mans the coffee bar and is obviously interested in him. And he lives at home with his loving but alcoholic mother (Celia Weston).
Job-wise, Ronnie is suddenly faced with two crises. One involves a flasher who’s bothering women out in the parking lot. And the other has to do with a robber who’s trashed several stores overnight. The cases bring in a local detective (Ray Liotta) who quickly becomes infuriated by Ronnie’s officiousness and, frankly, his stupidity (his penchant for accusing anybody within his line of sight of the crimes and interfering in the cop’s questioning of witnesses are major irritants). And did I mention that, as his ongoing battle with a Middle Eastern clerk called “Saddamn” in the credits shows, Barnhardt’s a raging bigot, too?
To their credit, Hill and Rogen don’t try to turn Ronnie into a softhearted creampuff at the close (though he’s allowed some quasi-nice moments with his mother and Nell). And they certainly don’t downplay the grossness of his night out with Brandi, or the violence of some of his encounters with bad-guys and cops (which, like some of the stuff in “The Fist Foot Way,” are likely to make you wince), or the in-your-fact explicitness of his face-off with that flasher. But while their refusal to go the conventional route is commendable, they don’t follow it through. Like “Foot” master Fred Simmons, Ronnie is basically a dangerous sociopath. But ultimately we’re asked to find him weirdly endearing and cheer him on. That’s really hard to do when you find a lot of what he says and does pretty revolting, and actually not very amusing. It’s easy to imagine a much harder-edged finish that could have elevated the picture to a whole different level. But one can imagine what the reaction of audiences would have been to that.
In any event, one doubts that Hill, an unsubtle director at best (as shown by his penchant for simply having actors pose and mug for the camera), could have managed that sort of turn. So what we’re left with is a movie that—like Ronnie—consistently opts for the crude and the unpleasant without much thought of the consequences. Within that context Rogen plays the lead without much shading, content to bellow and let that short fuse run out. The supporting players don’t go beyond the one-note, either, though Wolfe (who also appeared in “Foot” as the pretty new student the instructor comes on to) adds a few refreshing respites in a generally non-stop flood of mean-spirited buffoonery. Technically the picture isn’t much beyond adequate.
“Observe and Report” will probably appeal to a special kind of viewer and become a cult hit of sorts. But people looking for a mainstream farce along these lines—especially one appropriate for families—should definitely stick with “Paul Blart,” as lame as that movie was, because what Hill has served up is definitely a sourball among Hollywood’s candied comedies, a picture that leaves a distinctly unpleasant aftertaste.