One of the year’s most divisive films — and I mean that almost literally — writer/director Jody Hill’s Observe and Report had the misfortune of following the loathsome Paul Blart: Mall Cop into theaters, which, coupled with Seth Rogen’s face all over Observe‘s posters, left people expecting a raunchy blast of cheerful lowbrow comedy. Even under the best of circumstances, I think this movie would have left audiences confused, but landing in Blart‘s shadow made its uphill climb that much steeper. Ultimately, it was probably always the kind of movie destined to find its most appreciative audience on the home video market — which is where it lands today, arriving on Blu-ray, DVD, and Video on Demand.
Rogen stars here as Ronnie Barnhardt, head of security at Forest Ridge Mall, where he rules, purse-lipped and crazy-eyed, over a lazy and ineffective crew that includes John and Matthew Yuan (as the twin Yuen brothers, natch) and Michael PeÁƒ±a (as Ronnie’s hilarious, lisping second in command, Dennis). As the movie opens, Forest Ridge is dealing with the parking lot shenanigans of a profane serial flasher whose assaults provoke Ronnie by not only upsetting the object of his affection, perfume salesperson Brandi (a congested-sounding Anna Faris), but putting him in the shadow of the police detective assigned to the case (Ray Liotta). It’s a premise ripe with comedic possibilities, and Rogen is one of the few movie stars who can both carry a movie and make you believe he really works in a mall. Observe‘s first act takes advantage of all of the above, wringing big laughs out of its outlandish characters (particularly Aziz Ansari, as an unctuous lotion salesman who has an axe to grind with Ronnie) while teasing the dark edges of Ronnie’s fraying psyche. Though Hill isn’t explicit at first, the movie makes it clear that Ronnie is a deeply disturbed man, prone to racist remarks and patronizing comments like “Everyone thinks they’re fine until someone puts something in them that they don’t want in them.” Bit by bit, Ronnie’s wall of sanity crumbles, leading to a catastrophic confrontation with the world he imagines he alone protects from evil.
It ain’t exactly Knocked Up, in other words; actually, Observe and Report has more in common with The King of Comedy, or even Taxi Driver, though neither of those films let their seams show this clearly. For all its strong points, Observe is a mess — it veers from a comedy about a deluded loser to a shockingly dark drama/thriller about a sick man off his meds to a laugh-out-loud tale of redemption…or something like it, anyway. It’s a jolting ride, and the kind of movie that’s bound to provoke unpredictable reactions in a theatrical setting, particularly from filmgoers who paid $7 and up to see it. On the small screen, it’s easier to appreciate Observe and Report‘s finer things: the hysterical supporting turns from Ansari, Danny McBride, and Patton Oswalt, or Faris’ perfect blend of tremendous stupidity and unbelievable arrogance, or Rogen’s smartly layered performance, which contains flashes of all the mental illness, bottomless rage and loneliness that motivates his character. Ronnie Barnhardt was a problematic role, and Observe and Report is a troubled film, but Rogen makes the best of it.
The Observe and Report Blu-ray comes with the usual perks — 1080p transfer, Dolby TrueHD and 5.1 sound — none of which really matter in a movie like this. It looks and sounds great, but hey, most of the movie takes place in a mall; you aren’t watching it for the intense audio-visual experience. What matters here are the extras, and as they’ve done with most of their new BD releases, Warner Bros. delivers the goods. On top of the standard bonus content (deleted scenes and a gag reel, both of which have their moments), the Blu-ray offers a pair of behind-the-scenes featurettes, one detailing the film in general and the other providing a more in-depth look at all the improv that went into Rogen and Faris’ date scene. You also get a “recruitment video” for the Forest Ridge Mall security force, which is as stupid as it sounds. But the real draw for the extra features is a picture-in-picture commentary from Hill, Rogen, and Faris — the trio drowns out the film pretty much from start to finish with a series of self-deprecating insights, and although their presence in the lower right-hand part of the screen might prove an annoyance for some, I actually preferred it to the standard audio-only setup.
It certainly isn’t for everyone, but Observe and Report is one of the bravest, strangest comedies to claw its way out of the studio system in a very long time. If you don’t count yourself among the faint of heart or easily offended, and you’re in the mood for a movie that isn’t afraid to take risks — and perpetually teeter on the edge of failure in the process — check it out.
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