In 1980, Robert Kolker published his influential work of film criticism, A Cinema of Loneliness, a longstanding bible for film students who were fascinated by the grittiness and artistry of '70s cinema and by the subsequent changes that happened to the pictures some of us really grew up with: the blockbusters and comedies of the '80s.
I remember staring at the front cover of my red paperback edition. It featured Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle, head downcast, his confused, rage-filled, ticking time-bomb character tightly wound with hands stuffed in pockets, his precise, military fit frame braving the dirty, sleazy, mean streets of New York. He was frightening, but oddly appealing. This was alienation. This was isolation. This was "God's lonely man." But for younger viewers, this was a distant memory. Not only in the movies, but also in the real world. Though this may sound like a strange question (and not a query one should summon): Where had all the Travis Bickles gone?
Quick answer? The shopping mall.
And if you get behind director writer Jody Hill's subversive, hilarious, weirdly poignant and almost horrifyingly timely Observe and Report, you'll see Travis, not only as a power-hungry security guard in the form of a schlubbier Seth Rogen, but also as a regular Joe consumer. He might be traversing the food court or staring at the ice skaters in the center rink or wondering if he can afford a flat-screen TV while making his mortgage payment, but he's there, facing down all of that cheaply made fast food, recycled air and overpriced merchandise. He's killing time and, to become even more of a downer here, he's killing his soul. Yes, he's killing his soul at...Cinnabon. It's funny and yet it's not.
Such is the power of Observe and Report, a movie that tips its hat to movies like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, but remains an animal all its own. Hill's study of a delusional, deranged head of mall security could only exist now. And, as funny as it is, it's going to get to people who are feeling faceless, disenfranchised and empty. With all of cinema's syrupy bromances, mean, shock humor comedies, and Judd Apatow life lessons to either catch an easy, gross-out laugh or lift one's spirit, emboldening one to finally grow up, Observe and Report reveals how complicated this really is.
But again, I repeat, Observe and Report is a comedy. I think...
Seth Rogen, in his greatest, most daring performance to date, plays Ronnie Barnhardt, an overbearing and delusional head of security at Forest Ridge Mall. He's all bluster, a true toughie and occasional racist (occasional?), but also a bully who's not-so-secretly lonely and most definitely fucked up. Like many a misfit, he still lives at home, in this case with his sweet but severely alcoholic mother (Celia Weston), a woman who hilariously passes out on the floor only to be, in a moment of almost shocking tenderness, blanketed by her loving, burly son. Harboring an obvious crush on the mall hottie, a blond, bosomy makeup-counter sales clerk (Anna Faris), he patrols the grounds like a mini-fascist, with all of the other guards under his well-respected command. But they seem to be the only people who respect him.
Enter the perfect perpetrator, a flasher who shows his goods to screaming ladies in the parking lot and, in a braver, more disgustingly hilarious move, directly inside the mall. Ronnie is obsessed with catching this guy, and understandably so (in real life, flashers aren't as funny and innocent as they seem and are usually one step away from serious sexual predator), but to the point of ridiculous outrage. After the mall is robbed, a real police officer comes on the scene: the craggily handsome, hard-boiled Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta), who would like to be anywhere but that mall, especially with Ronnie hovering. He's dragged into the flasher situation, and, thereby, in Ronnie's eyes, oversteps his jurisdiction. This is his case, and no way is Harrison going to take the glory, no matter how little Harrison actually cares.
Through the presence of Harrison we learn what Ronnie really aspires to be: a cop. And his attempts to become one are both amusing and pathetic. With shades of serial killer intensity (how many serial killers want to be security guards or cops?), Ronnie goes through training with an almost admirable determination and handles a particularly dangerous situation involving violent drug offenders (which features a terrific cameo by Hill muse Danny McBride) with hysterically violent efficiency. The scene is weirdly inspiring -- and you realize how much you're rooting for this demented man. And, he really could be a cop. Only he's nuts. This is his greatest tragedy, which, in Hill's transgressive, intelligent hands, is surprisingly crushing. How we grow to like this character is the picture's clever trick, and thanks to Rogen's potent performance and Hill's powerful dose of pitch black humor dusted with glimmers of humanity, we really do care. No matter how his date with Faris ends up (I won't reveal that here).
However, there are those who will hate this movie. Hate it. But, good. People are really talking/arguing/dissecting Hill's picture - it's clearly affecting people.
While driving past the movie's posters and spying Rogen's now ubiquitous mug hogging the frame, I can't help but think of what the more unsuspecting viewer (not movie critic) who stumbles into this studio comedy will think. Without reading a review or even watching a preview (which reveals some of the picture's darkness, though not much), if such a viewer believes he or she is getting another generic Paul Blart: Mall Cop or an Apatow-infused Rogen charmer, they're in for quite a shock. There's no family friendly moment, there's no obvious redemption leading to a healing psychological breakthrough, there's no supportive friend like...Paul Rudd (some of us wish we had a Paul Rudd in our life). Instead there's Michael Pena offering brotherly love by aiming at innocent bystanders and shooting up smack in the bathroom. I can't remember the last time I saw heroin in a mainstream comedy (if ever), and I never realized I needed to see it until now. It's freakishly funny while strangely realistic and familiar. Amidst laughing, I felt an odd relief from this sick moment. I mean, if there's ever a place where one needs to self-medicate, it's at the soul-sucking mall. (I wonder what Robert Kolker would have to say about that).
Which makes this movie all the more shocking than, say, (and I admire the following examples) that junkie epic Trainspotting, and a lot more subversive than anything Michael Haneke hatches up. Because Observe and Report isn't playing at your local art house. No, it's playing right in the belly of the beast: at the mall.
Read my interview with Jody Hill here.