Jody Hill's Observe and Report is a near-perfect film, a modern mall-set Taxi Driver with an amazing lead performance from Seth Rogen as Ronnie Barnhardt, the "head of mall security" at a suburban mall beset with robberies and a particularly aggressive parking-lot flasher. Hill's script delights in finding and subverting cliches in hilarious and genuinely clever ways, so there's every kind of laugh here--laughter of recognition, perversity, surprise, pity, laughter at complicated set-ups which pay off in unexpected ways. This is a very funny movie.
Ronnie is bi-polar and completely delusional, a wannabe cop who spends his days talking tough and...walking around a mall. He leads a crew of misfit security guards, including Dennis (Michael Peña in a brilliant performance), a suck-up with secrets, and John and Matt Yuen (John and Matt Yuan), who join Ronnie on the weekends to talk guns and shoot guns and clean guns and fantasize about and fetishize guns at the local shooting range.
Ronnie lives with and enables his drunken mother (Celia Weston), who manages to say a lot of the right things, and many wrong things, you'd expect a loving mother to say to her son. Ronnie's whole life, though, is the mall, and his vision of himself as the protector of right in a brutal world.
He also has a crush on Brandi (Anna Faris, also great), one of the victims of the flasher, and finally manages to get a date with her, just one of many improbable feats he manages to perform without any indication of where it will lead. Her perfect, unattainable blonde image, some late narration by Ronnie and some aspects of the ending are the only overt references to Taxi Driver.
The film has the guts to go with that vision to some remarkable, and remarkably funny places. Ronnie's confrontation with drug dealers during a police ride-along, his introduction to the dark side by Dennis, and his two final confrontations in the mall are as original and entertaining as anything.
Taxi Driver has had some fascinating antecedents, including Scorsese's own The King of Comedy, Almodóvar's Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa and The Brave One and Vincent Gallo's Buffalo 66, stories of genuinely nutty but wise outsiders who don't understand anything but have strong convictions they impose on the world, with varying results, and Observe and Report fits in this category, without abandoning Ronnie Barnhardt's own peculiar, goofy reality. It's an absurdist reality, too, on a par with Adam Sandler's two great first films, Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, and as funny.
Without giving away too much of the plot, Ronnie is confronted with two mysteries at the beginning of the film: who's robbing stores, and the identity and motives of the flasher. We see him confront them both with stupidity, insight and bravery.
We also get to watch him pursue his dream of joining the real police force, something we know is completely impossible, but Ronnie doesn't. That's the real magic of the film. Ronnie believes, and keeps believing, even when everybody else knows exactly why his belief is silly, beyond naive, dangerous and impossible. He keeps on believing.
If you have a serious aversion to male frontal nudity, you may be as challeged by this film as by the recent Watchmen, but you could always put your fingers over your eyes, it's a very entertaining and worthwhile film.
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