Observe and Report

Movies Reviews Seth Rogen
Observe and Report

Release Date: April 10

Director: Jody Hill

Writer: Jody Hill

Cinematographer: Tim Orr

Starring: Seth Rogen, Ray Liotta, Michael Peña, Anna Faris

Second-rate Taxi Driver

Calling Observe and Report a comedic variation of Taxi Driver is half right. Jody Hill’s new movie about a mall security guard with delusions of grandeur does follow the plot and structure of Scorsese’s stylish 1976 portrait of an unstable cabbie. But the comparison misses the fact that Taxi Driver is itself pretty funny, by design. All of its looming and actual bursts of violence are dripping with irony, and the dangerous naiveté of the eponymous taxi driver, Travis Bickle, is the source of many of the film’s jokes, unsettling though they may be.

The marginalized individual at the center of Observe and Report is Ronnie Barnhardt, played by Seth Rogen. Although he tries to project macho competence as he walks the mall floor, he’s ill equipped to deal with the most pressing security issues: a flasher who is terrorizing female shoppers and a burglar who rips the place off at night. Worse than the actual perpetrators, in Ronnie’s eyes, is a detective played by Ray Liotta. When actual police like him appear, they inadvertently rub Ronnie’s nose in his meager rank.

Observe and Report feels like a leap beyond Hill’s first film, The Foot Fist Way, a minor comedy about a self-aggrandizing tae kwon do instructor, but the difference this time is one of ambition more than ability. He’s reaching higher, but his storytelling is as episodic and disjointed as ever. In the film’s first reel we see Ronnie going about his day, but it’s hard to tell how the scenes are stitched together in time. We never have a sense of what anyone is doing when they’re not on the screen, and even when they are it’s hard to know why they’re doing what they’re doing. Why does Liotta’s cop get so enraged by a mall security guard? Why does Brandi, a make-up counter employee played by Anna Faris, roll her eyes at Ronnie one day and go on a date with him the next?

Hill recognizes the need for logic—the detective says Ronnie is messing up his investigation and Brandi knows that a date with Ronnie means free booze—but those character details are unconvincing. Brandi in particular is so chaotic and underwritten that even Faris, who often shines in such roles, can’t seem to get a handle on a bored glam girl who’s strangely terrified by a pudgy man in a raincoat.

Observe and Report also feels like a leap simply because Hill has more tools at his disposal, such as ace cinematographer Tim Orr and a larger budget for music clearances. But the songs are a seductive curse; the film’s mood relies heavily on a taste for eclectic power rock that can’t be attributed to any of the characters. And while the actors—especially Michael Peña as Ronnie’s right-hand man—generally seem to have fun with their oddball roles, they need Rogen as an anchor. He gives a fine performance, but the affable, under-achieving lug that he’s played in a dozen other films hangs over this one, undercutting the need for boiling instability.

In truth, even Taxi Driver has its flaws. Why Cybill Shepherd’s character is dumb enough to walk into a porn theater with Bickle is anyone’s guess, and that’s partly why I prefer Scorsese’s King of Comedy. That film, too, has been called a comedic variation of Taxi Driver, but it’s at least as serious as its forerunner. It also deviously allows the main character to offer reasons for his actions, but those dubious explanations raise even more questions.

By contrast, Hill seems to believe that Ronnie’s psychology is pretty easy to unpack. He was born with difficulties. He was raised without a father. He lives with a caring but drunken mother, the film’s own detour from the unseen mother in The King of Comedy (which Scorsese probably borrowed from Psycho). Hill tries to allude to unseen details, like early childhood problems, but he either hasn’t imagined them or can’t evoke them. If Hill shows promise as a filmmaker it’s because he consistently wants his characters to exist beyond the story’s boundaries. But, so far, he hasn’t been able to come up with any that do.

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