The defining moment of writer-director Jody Hill’s hilarious and often shocking Observe and Report comes somewhere in the middle, when one character says of an attempt to humiliate the central anti-hero, Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen), “I thought this was gonna be funny, but instead it’s kind of sad.” Hill’s film is a brutally dark comedy, the kind of story that surprises you into laughter and then almost shames you into stunned silence at the way the characters are behaving. It is light-years away from a wacky bathroom comedy by, say, the Farelly brothers, in which you could reasonably comfort yourself with the knowledge that everything on screen is meant to exist in a kind of heightened unreality. What makes Hill’s film so impressive and daringly funny is the way he firmly grounds it in violence, insanity, and the pathetic lives of deluded and bizarre little people. Observe and Report is a random and immediate film, a blast of weird humor that’s as entertaining for the roundabout way it discovers its voice as for what it’s using that voice to say.
Ronnie is the head of security at his local mall, and he’s the kind of blindly crass and emotionally off-kilter lead that makes sense to anyone who’s seen Hill’s other recent creation, HBO’s “Eastbound and Down.” He’s perfectly content to coast at the mall until one day a flasher terrorizes a few women in the parking lot, including Brandi (Anna Faris), who works the cosmetics counter at one of the department stores. Ronnie’s manager brings in Det. Harrison (Ray Liotta) to investigate, and the presence of an actual cop — who doesn’t remotely like Ronnie — is pretty much all the catalyst Ronnie needs to begin competing with Harrison to solve the case. But as simple as that reads, nothing about it is remotely cute or safe or conventionally funny. Hill’s film feels out and mines the various disconnects between entertaining/depressing and purposely waits around longer than expected in each scene to let the characters’ moments fully play out. For instance, one of the story’s main arcs deals with Ronnie’s growing desire to become a legitimate police officer, and on a ride-along with Harrison, he finds himself ditched on a dark street in a bad part of town. He of course winds up having a run-in with drug dealers, and though the confrontation is funny enough, Hill sends it skating over the edge into insanity when Ronnie breaks out a collapsible baton and proceeds to actually maim — and pretty possibly kill — the small group of thugs. The film slides from quirky jokes to compound fractures with alarming speed, and though Ronnie’s antics are played for laughs, they’d be likely to get a different reaction from someone viewing the film at home alone, without the comfort of a crowd and the assurance that can be drawn from collectively laughing at something unsettling. But in addition to the dichotomy between those reactions, Hill’s film is a further exploration of what it means to acknowledge that difference in the first place and what it means to ignore it. In other words, Hill’s point isn’t to make you stop and think about why you’re laughing, but to test the limits of what makes you laugh in the first place.
Most of the film follows the fragmented narrative of Ronnie trying to find the flasher and pursuing an impossible career in professional law enforcement, as well as attempts to date Brandi while ignoring the sweet-natured Christian girl, Nell (Collette Wolfe), who works in the food court. Hill’s film is pretty perfectly paced at just 86 minutes, and though there’s no arc or lesson or ultimate entertainment experience that couldn’t have been accomplished in a half-hour short, the film manages to keep from overstaying its welcome by skipping lightly from one absurd situation to the next. More than a few of the scenes feature the kind of freewheeling improvisation that tends to find its way into comedies like this one, though the best of these is probably a lengthy back and forth between Ronnie and Saddamn (Aziz Ansari), whom Ronnie accuses of burglarizing one of the mall’s stores and plotting to blow up the Chick-Fil-A. The best way to describe the film is to call it confrontationally humorous; it’s almost brave in the way it presents a central character without the underlying softness typical of Rogen’s work, then goes even further by asking them to empathize with him. And in a way, you do. Ronnie’s a bipolar guy who doesn’t like his meds, and his mom (Celia Weston) is a raging drunk who often passes out in the living room. Hill’s skill is that he plays these moments for laughs but also doesn’t attempt to diminish how inherently pathetic they are. These are screwed-up, sad, but somehow understandable people.
Rogen proves he’s capable of carrying a modest comedy like this one on his shoulders, and though Ronnie isn’t the most readily likable character he’s played, it’s the one that’s taken the most guts to create. Rogen has made a career out of playing versions of himself, and this is only his second live-action feature that hasn’t involved Judd Apatow in some capacity. He takes the film dark and keeps it there. Faris is right in step, too, playing a more vicious version of her typical ditz character. But in many ways it’s Michael Pena as Ronnie’s lieutenant, Dennis, who’s the most impressive. Pena is almost exclusively a dramatic actor with credits like “The Shield,” Babel, and World Trade Center. But he’s hilarious and amazing here, an insane amalgam of wannabe pimp and everyday junkie. And though he doesn’t get to do much aside from some good straight-man reaction shots, Jesse Plemons (“Friday Night Lights”) still has a few great moments. Observe and Report is ultimately an entertaining film, but it’s almost more interesting for what it says about Hill himself. He’s fantastic at mixing humor and pathos in a way that doesn’t overtly call attention to itself; basically, instead of trying to make a movie that would be classified as “edgy,” Hill just did it, and not out of any desire to see what happens but just because this is what he thinks is funny. He just lets Ronnie serve up “hot plates of justice,” and it works.