Observe and Report is an occasionally amusing, persistently disturbing comedy that at times plays like a bipolar disorder episode from the inside out. Like the Farrelly brothers’ Me, Myself & Irene, it uses broad comedy to get us into a troubled mind.
Is that a fair tactic? I suppose the answer lies in whether or not you feel the movie is on the same side as Ronnie (Seth Rogen), a mall cop whose tenuous grip on reality is entirely tied to his risible position of authority.
A shrink at one point says that Ronnie “shows warning signs of delusion” and he himself says he’s on medication for bipolar disorder. The movie treats these details as gag opportunities, but I’m not sure that’s the same thing as laughing at its troubled main character.
One thing’s for sure – Ronnie would be incapable of laughing with. He’s devoted to his delusions, parading through the mall with his chest puffed out, issuing expletive-laden orders to his inept underlings. When a flasher starts prowling the mall, Ronnie sees the incident as a chance to prove himself by catching the pervert. But things go violently awry with the arrival of a real police investigator (Ray Liotta in psycho mode).
Rogen embraces his schlumpiness here as never before (and considering Knocked Up and Zack and Miri Make a Porno, that’s saying something). Ronnie is swollen, often sweaty and continually putting his own idiocy at the forefront. Each awkward exchange with a sweet coffee girl named Nell (Collette Wolfe) is an exercise in self-humiliation.
That’s a familiar theme for writer-director Jody Hill, whose The Foot Fist Way – in which Danny McBride played an incompetent, strip-mall tae kwon do instructor – was another self-loathing character study. Both movies center on buffoons striving to maintain their misplaced sense of authority.
As harsh as Observe and Report is, I still think the movie empathizes with Ronnie. You can sense it in the rare, tender moments: his conversations with his alcoholic mother (Celia Weston); the way Nell patiently waits for his bluster to die down; the montage that traces the healings of his bruises after a particularly violent encounter of his own making.
The picture even ends on a note of relative triumph for Ronnie. I won’t give it away, except to offer the warning that if the extended, ungainly male nudity of Borat bothered you, you might want to duck out early.
“I win,” Ronnie smirks at the conclusion of this riotous, delightfully deranged set piece. And because we’ve spent the movie in his head, we feel like we’ve won too.