Say this for Jody Hill’s disturbing black comedy Observe And Report: When it’s over, you know you’ve seen something. Something of a cross between the formalist whimsy of Wes Anderson and the God’s-lonely-man psychosis of Taxi Driver, the film breaks all the rules, but the tonal schizophrenia that results isn’t an accident. Hill means to unsettle viewers by confusing the fantasies of an overzealous mall security guard with the bitter, down-to-earth reality of his pathetic, unhinged desperation. The trouble with Observe And Report is that Hill tries to have it both ways: He presents a hero who’s hopelessly deluded and dangerous, yet he indulges those delusions, too, and turns them into a bizarre sort of wish-fulfillment. In the end, it’s hard to know how he feels about the man.
Cut from the same cloth as Danny McBride’s strip-mall sensei in Hill’s overrated debut feature The Foot Fist Way, Seth Rogen stars as the doughy, crew-cut head of security at an average suburban mall. Where most would consider the place a harmless commune of Sunglass Huts and Dress Barns, Rogen sees the nexus of good and evil, casting himself as the iron-fisted arbiter of justice. When a flasher terrorizes a few customers in the parking lot—including Rogen’s Cybill Shepherd, a bitchy makeup-counter beauty played by Anna Faris—Rogen springs into action, but his heavy-handed tactics get in the way of Ray Liotta’s official police investigation. With Liotta as his bête noire, Rogen even tries to legitimize his quest by pursuing a position in the police department.
Not since Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love has a studio comedy so willfully punctuated fantasy with shocking violence. One minute, it takes a hard look at Rogen as the sad, beaten-down, deluded son of an alcoholic; the next, it asks the audience to cheer as he mercilessly thrashes skate-punks with their own boards. Taken piecemeal, there are many brilliantly funny scenes and sequences—one where Rogen follows his right-hand man (Michael Peña) into rogue territory is a particular highlight—and on a technical level, Hill has advanced immeasurably over the shoestring sloppiness of Foot Fist Way. But as a whole, Observe And Report is indigestible, torn apart by the same mass of contradictions that give it distinction.