The moment most critical for understanding Jody Hill’s 2009 black comedy, Observe and Report, is played entirely for laughs. It occurs when the central character of the story, mall security guard Ronnie (played brilliantly by Seth Rogen), has resigned himself to following the antisocial nihilism of his co-worker Dennis (a hilarious Michael Pena). The two guards then embark on a wild spree of destructive debauchery, which openly ignores not only the rules of their workplace but basic social decorum and morality.
This sequence, which shows the guards doing everything from illicit drugs to beating up parking lot skateboarders, is punctuated by a startling moment where they come across a piece of graffiti that says FUCK. The pair stare at it for a moment before adding the word YOU. While this is a funny scene, it is also subtly affecting, underlining the film’s core themes. Despite the presence of Rogen (who then was fresh off his star-making turn in Knocked Up) and the film’s broad, mainstream veneer, Hill’s comedy is actually a deeply disturbed, subversive piece of work. It pairs surprisingly dark subject matter (mental illness, violence, chemical abuse) with effective comedy. The result is a bleak albeit still entertaining look at a hopelessly inept man. Similar to the graffiti he modifies, the film focuses on Ronnie’s transformation, specifically how his raging anger towards life gradually moves from passive observation to aggressive action.
“The world has no use for another scared man,” Ronnie says at one point in Observe and Report, which offers insight into his warped pathology. As a security guard at a suburban mall, Ronnie lives in a world of perpetual delusion and isolation. Surrounded on a daily basis by commodities and things, the character’s megalomania and self-absorption are obvious right at the beginning. Haughty, irascible and quite unlikable, he possesses a deluded sense of his own importance. Despite living with his alcoholic mother and pathetically pining after a vapid mall makeup artist named Brandy (Anna Faris in another excellent comedic performance), Ronnie behaves as if he is destined for some purpose. He alone can keep the forces of evil and lawlessness at bay, even if those forces only exist in his own mind, largely spurred on by the terror that he actually doesn’t matter.
Things change when an anonymous flasher invades the banal commercial environment, throwing the lives of its staff and patrons into chaos. Ronnie reacts quite differently. He relishes the opportunity the crime presents and even remarks on it by saying, “This disgusting pervert is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
From this point on Ronnie is animated. He throws himself into pursuit of the flasher, despite having no leads, no evidence and none of the investigatory skills necessary to acquire them. It is also here where Hill’s film takes off, shedding the inertia of its earlier sections and staging a variety of comedic bits that are quite inspired. Yet, despite this focus on comedy, Hill’s script never loses its darker edges. Observe and Report is squarely about people who are in danger of being swallowed up by their own nihilism. While the story makes room for whimsy, such as when Faris’s Brandy gets flashed and Ronnie and his subordinates immediately form a “perimeter” around her (constituted by orange cones), there is always a hopelessness behind the scenes, a suggestion that these are characters whose lives are small and meaningless, and that they secretly know it.
At its best, Observe and Report is able to draw comedy directly out of that darkness, confirming that laughter is often born from the most desperate places. The film however is no masterpiece; it never capitalizes fully on the satirical promise of its suburban mall setting (the epitome of decadent, mindless commercialism). Instead, it is more of a minor character study. And while many have acknowledged it as a comedic riff on Scorsese’s iconic Taxi Driver, it actually functions as the spiritual predecessor of James Gunn’s brilliant Super, which also featured a man battling petty crime in order to justify his existence.
Like that later film, Observe and Report carves out a place for a unique and vibrant cast of characters, and it provides a platform for a number of inspired comedic performances. In addition to Faris and Pena, Ray Liotta appears as Detective Harrison, an actual police officer sent to investigate the case of the flasher. While his performance doesn’t necessarily break any new ground for the actor, he is an excellent, straight man foil for Rogen’s unhinged Ronnie.
There are a number of other bit parts played gamely by actors who are now well established. They include Jesse Plemon, a fellow security guard who actually seems somewhat sane, and Patton Oswalt, as a mean-spirited food court worker. Finally, Aziz Ansari shows up as a mall patron named Saddamn, who repeatedly gets into verbal sparring matches with Ronnie (largely consisting of the pair hilariously volleying the expression FUCK YOU back and forth).
Of course, the film belongs to Rogen, and for better or worse his Ronnie is the ugly heart and depraved soul of Observe and Report. The script by director Hill uses the actor with an acute awareness of his gifts, brutally highlighting the awful self-absorption evident in other Rogen roles, but tempering it so he remains recognizably human. Rogen, to his credit, brings forth a fully-realized character, one whose worldview may be delusional but is also so potent and tangible that it still feels accessible and real for viewers.
The actor also manages to imbue his character with a surprising amount of sympathy, despite the repugnant nature of his activities and the unforgiving, overly simplistic way that he views the world. Similar to Rainn Wilson’s performance in Super, Rogen is able to capture the idea of someone whose heart may be in the right place but who cannot grapple with the overwhelming complexity of the human experience. The extreme behaviors that this drives him to are sad and pathetic certainly. Yet, they also possess a strange sort of admirable dignity. This is the type of tension that Hill’s film harnesses and runs with, producing a fascinating, funny and imperfect study of man hellbent on remaking the world in his own ridiculous image.