Mall-cop comedy with a sick side

Seth Rogen as Ronnie Barnhardt, a bipolar mall security officer out to nab a parking-lot flasher, in "Observe and Report."
Seth Rogen as Ronnie Barnhardt, a bipolar mall security officer out to nab a parking-lot flasher, in "Observe and Report."
Posted: April 10, 2009

Do all mall security officers live with their moms?

If Paul Blart: Mall Cop and now Observe and Report present an accurate depiction of the private lives of shopping guards, apparently the answer is yes.

But while Shirley Knight, as Blart's mother, provided a nurturing environment for the goofball loser hero of spring's improbable comedy mega-hit, the matriarch in Observe and Report - played with slurry panache by Celia Weston - is a blotto alcoholic waxing nostalgic about her slutty sex life and passing out on the living room floor. Nightly.

But still, she loves her son, and he loves her, and there you have the essence of filmmaker Jody Hill's profiles in self-delusion and dysfunction: Offer up weird stuff, deliver it with dark, twisted, subversive glee, but make sure everybody has their heart in the right place.

Observe and Report, which is as funny as it is sick (and it's plenty of both), stars Seth Rogen as Ronnie Barnhardt, a bipolar law-enforcement dude, patrolling the Forest Ridge Mall with his walkie-talkie and his Taser. (He's been lobbying for firearms, but his boss has wisely demurred.) Ronnie's got a thing for Brandi (Anna Faris), a ditzy cosmetic-counter salesgirl, and when a flasher starts terrorizing patrons in the parking lot, Ronnie takes the crime personally. It's a challenge to his authority, not to mention to his (imagined) girlfriend's psychological well-being.

So Ronnie sets out to protect Brandi from this perv, and to prove that he's better equipped to apprehend the culprit than the local authorities are. Especially Detective Harrison (a deadpan Ray Liotta), who rolls up to the mall to interview witnesses - Ronnie looking on, shaking his head, seething with contempt.

In between getting loaded on the job, violently harassing skateboarders, and philosophizing with his loopy, lispy mall-cop partner Dennis (Michael Peña), Ronnie does his utmost to capture the flasher. Rogen, working against his usual affable schlub type role, projects a wonderfully warped and dangerous vibe. Ronnie is alienated, arrogant, deluded - and still, you love the guy.

Kind of.

Writer/director Hill has a knack for painting protagonists who are full of unjustified confidence and obnoxious hauteur - simultaneously mocking them and empathizing with them. He pulled this deft stunt off in 2008's lost goofball gem, The Foot Fist Way, with Danny McBride as a self-assured martial-arts instructor/nincompoop. (Paramount Vantage didn't have a clue how to market the film - it came and went in the blink of an eye.)

Observe and Report works on a slightly bigger scale, with bigger stars, but takes the same approach. And there are more than a few scenes where you'll be shaking your head in disbelief at the moral horror confronting you - a drunken seduction scene between Rogen and Faris is perhaps the topper. Or bottomer.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

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