One of the reasons I retroactively dropped the Joe preview into Trailer Sunday is that Observe and Report is continually being compared to films that like and Taxi Driver. There's a genre in the mid-seventies about the psychotic/suicidal anti-hero that was a byproduct of increasingly violent Late Film Noir (D.O.A., Ace in the Hole, and Kiss Me Deadly). Observe and Report is clearly borrowing from this tradition, down to a well placed joke based on Travis Bickle's Taxi Driver montage, but I think there's something else going on here.
For starters, Observe and Report is the logical "next step" for Jody Hill. After The Foot Fist Way and Eastbound and Down, he's developed a knack for sociopaths with delusions of grandeur. While all three are comedies, they get increasingly darker. The final three episodes of Eastbound and Down turned out to be a nice bridge to Observe and Report, and it's probably for the best that the show aired before Report came out, because this may be the most uncomfortable laughter you can squeeze out of an audience.
Here's where the difference is between Observe and Report, Hill's other projects, and the "anti-hero" genre: I like Kenny Powers. I liked Fred Simmons. Yes, they were assholes and they treated people like shit, but underneath all of that, they were insecure dorks who had one thing they were good at. I even like Travis Bickle, despite all of the awkwardness and delusions. Travis Bickle is adrift, looking for a purpose to direct himself towards. Instead he lets his seething disgust and anger simmer, and when he can't successfully eliminate a politician, he settles for a pimp.
Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen), on the other hand, I could not find myself rooting for. Ronnie is an appallingly dangerous sociopath, one who has access to power and a knack for violence that does no one in the film good. Even when he uses his brutality for good and abuses Nell (Collette Wolfe)'s boss to make him stop treating her like shit (a rare use of Patton Oswalt as the bad guy), it's in a bullying and clearly unethical way. He even has to ask Nell to pretend "I was never here". And that's the nice thing he does. Otherwise, he's relentlessly unlikeable, racist, and homophobic. Not unlike Joe Curran or Travis Bickle.
Ronnie is the head of Mall Security, and wields that position as though he was God's gift to the mall. This is par the course for a Jody Hill film, but the difference is that there's no real comeuppance for Ronnie at any point. Every time the universe proves him wrong, he bludgeons his way into winning again, including a shockingly violent finale involving a mall flasher. I really wasn't sure what to make of Ronnie graphically breaking someone's arm halfway into an 86 minute movie, but Observe and Report packs a lot of psychotic into a short span.
I'm not troubled that Ronnie wins (by his standards, and to be honest by the standards of just about every other character), although it is a break from the "anti-hero" label the film so frequently is likened to. For example, Travis Bickle somehow doesn't die in his charge of violence, and is regarded in small ways as a "folk hero", but you can tell at the end of Taxi Driver that the madness is still lurking behind those eyes. It's the last shot, for crying out loud.
Ronnie Barnhardt is rewarded for being an unlikeable, dangerous thug in a way that probably makes him more like Jack Bauer than Travis Bickle. Without spoiling too much, unlike Kenny Powers or Fred Simmons, Ronnie gets exactly what he wants with none of the consequences of his actions because his way solves all of the problems that matter.
Despite not really knowing how I feel about Ronnie, I think that Seth Rogen was very good in a totally different kind of role than we're used to. Anna Faris is good, if a bit one dimensional, as the object of Ronnie's affections. She's not interested, but he does manage to get her drunk and drugged up enough that there's a debatable rape scene in the film. Ray Liotta is great playing a variation on the "perplexed actual hero" role, and does it in a way that you really feel bad he has to suffer Ronnie's presence.
The other mall cops (Michael Peña, Jesse Plemons, and John and Matt Yuan) each have their moment to shine, particularly Peña, who gets the best of the film's montages and gets some surprising character development. Because of the way Observe and Report is designed, it actually caught me off guard that Hill was developing Wolfe's Nell as a legitimate love interest for Ronnie and not simply another subject in his kingdom, but the pay off is sweet. Aziz Ansari and Danny McBride both get good cameos, as does Patton Oswalt, all ending in the wrath of Ronnie Barnhardt.
Technically speaking, Hill stepped up his game for Observe and Report. There's some great camerawork, use of editing, and slow motion in the film. His use of music is clever and unexpected, and I think Observe and Report is a very well made film. The story moves out of the constraints you're expecting almost immediately, and goes in directions I did not see coming, which is a sign of good film-making. For a movie that's as short as Observe and Report is, I never felt like I was being short changed as an audience member.
So should you watch Observe and Report? If you like Eastbound and Down, and particularly if you really liked The Foot Fist Way, then yes. I skew it in that direction because for all its depravities, Eastbound and Down is actually friendlier for most audiences than The Foot Fist Way is. There's something to the comparisons to psychotic "antihero" films, so if you're a fan of that sub-genre, it's also worth looking into. Most people just aren't going to understand why they should watch Observe and Report, and to be honest, the movie is not at all for them. If you read this review and said "who would watch a movie about this guy?", then steer clear. You will not enjoy the film. The comedy comes in strange places and will no doubt only push you further away.
For those of you who fall in the former category, I highly recommend Observe and Report. It's a step forward for Jody Hill, and I look forward to whatever he has planned next.