Observe and Report writer-director Jody Hill makes mean-spirited tragedies that studios market as inane comedies because otherwise no one would pay a cent to see them. That's more or less what happened to Hill's The Foot Fist Way in 2008. Three viewings later, it's more unclear than ever whether Danny McBride's tae kwon do instructor is intended as punch line or punching bag, but the character remains so loathsome—that despicable combination of coward and bully—you're far more inclined to root against him than cheer for him. The guy deserves every last ass-kicking.
So too does Observe and Report's Ronnie Barnhardt, the bipolar mall cop who roams the craptacular Forest Ridge Mall. Ronnie, played by Seth Rogen with the dead-eyed ferocity of a barely functioning sociopath, has packed his bags for a very, very long power trip. As far as he's concerned, he's more than some security schmuck who chases off mallrats and hoodie hoods; he's "a fucking hero," better than any lowly cop. "I believe every man has a path laid out before him," he mutters in a deranged, deadpan drone. "My path is a righteous one. I've been chosen to be the protector."
Just in time, the gods deliver him the villain every hero needs: a parking-lot flasher who jerks it in front of Brandi (Anna Faris), the dimwitted, mean-spirited salesgirl on whom Ronnie has a stalker's crush. Ronnie, who still lives with an alcoholic mother (Celia Weston) prone to passing out mid-sentence, will be her savior; Brandi, his salvation. And yes, the Taxi Driver parallels are intentional: Hill spells them out in the press notes, all but branding Observe and Report a Scorsesefied remake that reeks of stale Cinnabon.
All you really need to know here can be summed up in two key sequences. In the first, Ronnie is rejected from the police academy, and the officer who gleefully volunteers to deliver the farewell fuck-off is the detective (Ray Liotta) whose mall-perv investigation Ronnie's been interfering with. As he does, a fellow detective (Ben Best) hides behind the door to revel in the slapdown. Alas, it's not as pleasurable as Best's character had hoped: "I thought it was gonna be funny," he says, scurrying out mid-speech, "but it's just sad." After Observe and Report's recent South by Southwest Film Festival debut, Hill's old friend and occasional collaborator, director David Gordon Green, suggested that should have been the movie's tagline.
The other definitive sequence involves Faris, passed out on a pillow streaked with vomit following a night spent shooting booze and popping pills with Ronnie, with whom she's agreed to go on a single "pre-date." Ronnie, drenched in sweat, writhes on top of Brandi. Finally, after an interminable few seconds, she coughs up a slurred rasp: "Whyyoustopinmotherfucker?" It's meant as a moment of comic relief: At least Ronnie isn't screwing her totally unconscious.
The not-funny-just-sad line is the perfect summation of Hill's entire (small) body of work. Guys like Ronnie are Hill's specialty. Problem is, you can never tell if Hill likes or loathes his creations.
Of late, Hill has been throwing the high heat on HBO's Eastbound & Down, starring McBride as a washed-up fuck-up pitcher banished from baseball who still thinks he's a Somebody. Eastbound works for the most part because of McBride, who's turning glorified douchery into high art. McBride knows better than most, even Rogen, the secret to Hill's work: It isn't intended to elicit laughter, but instead the wince of revulsion.