Seth Rogen usually seems like a teddy bear -- a gangling softy with the slow-rolling walk of a big guy and a wide goofy grin, his rumbling "hey, hey, hey" of a laugh littering the bars, backrooms and bedrooms of "Knocked Up," "Superbad" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" just to name a few. If that's the Seth you are looking for in "Observe and Report," here's a news flash: Rogen doesn't live here anymore.
This black-as-a-starless-night comedy about an off-his-meds bipolar, delusions-of-grandeur mall cop (no sweet, bumbling Kevin James anywhere in sight) with a hot "case" on his hands is like the film version of a stun gun -- so, like the Boy Scouts say (and by the way, there's no way most of them will be allowed into this hard-R movie): Be prepared.
"Observe and Report" is filled with enough F-bombs to take out the entire midsection of the country; it has its own special brand of unrestrained head-bashing, stomach-kicking, nightstick-beating brutality that echoes rogue guerrillas anywhere. And there is a long, long, long (did I say long?) full-frontal run by a middle-aged, pot-bellied flasher clad only in a flapping trench coat and a very sturdy pair of sneakers (now where is 3-D when you really need it?).
Sex? Not really. There are a couple of boom-boom scenes with an energetic Anna Faris as Brandi, the sexy cosmetics counter clerk, but they're not designed to satisfy anyone on-screen or off (if you're wondering, "Then what's the point?" hold that thought).
And Rogen? This is the film in which he goes dark, really dark. As chief of security at a local mall, he swaggers through this domain like a very troubled teenager with power, rage issues and a Taser that he's not afraid to use. Just how unhinged does Rogen's Ronnie Barnhardt seem? Super scary Ray Liotta, who does a crazed bad guy as good as anyone, is the local cop assigned to deal with the mall flasher case -- and he's the sane one.
The central agent provocateur of "Observe and Report" is writer-director Jody Hill, who made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006 with his violent strip mall chop-socky "The Foot Fist Way." Hill is clearly fascinated by the mall culture, using it as a petri dish in which to study the unbalanced mind, stuffing it full of that all too common species -- I use the scientific term here -- losers.
What's interesting about Hill's approach is that his guys do unforgivable things and yet he counts on their loserness (rather than big hearts, decency or humanity) to ultimately win us over and convince us they are unconventional heroes whom we should embrace. At best, by the end of his films, you feel like you might, just might, be OK being in the same room with them. But embrace? I don't think so.
There is an arc to Ronnie's story as his hopes of cracking the case of the flasher -- played by Randy Gambill, Hill's production designer on "Foot Fist Way" -- lead him to dreams of earning a spot in the police academy if that darned old psych test doesn't get in the way. He's also dreaming of winning Brandi's heart though it's really unclear whether she has one. He's got his own special-forces unit and if you think Ronnie sounds weird, just think of what the guys who look up to him are like. Michael Pena, whom we're used to seeing in strong dramatic roles ("World Trade Center," "Shooter"), turns up as Ronnie's No. 2, a lisping acolyte and the closest thing Ronnie has to a best friend.
Ronnie roams the Forest Ridge Mall with the macho birthright of a lion on the Serengeti, albeit one so inept that he hasn't made a kill in weeks. There are cliches to be found at every kiosk including a daily, extended F-bomb face-off with Middle Eastern merchant Saddamn (Aziz Ansari). And the free cup of joe anytime from the food court where a smitten Nell (Collette Wolfe) waits for him to swing by each day. At the end of each of those days, Ronnie goes home to mom, in this case a sweet alcoholic with lots of boozy unconditional love played by veteran character actor Celia Weston. Things come to a head as they always do, and then it's over. Whew.
But now we get back to the underlying question: Just what exactly is the point of all the hitting of hot buttons, pushing the genre envelope, sending the profanity meter off the charts, going postal on the violence?
This is definitely not a parody, so that's out. And if Hill and Rogen are shooting for satire, they don't get there -- that's an art form that requires more sophisticated thinking. You can do raunchy, un-PC but thought-provoking comedy brilliantly (or at least very, very well) as Sacha Baron Cohen proved with "Borat" on the big screen and "Da Ali G Show" on the small.
It turns out that the film's title, "Observe and Report," is the credo of mall cops everywhere -- they can look and take notes but they can't actually do anything. Put another way, they are ultimately impotent and expendable. Which is not a bad way to think of this movie. It heaps piles of bad, crazy stuff at our feet then walks away. There is no moral to this story, and there's not much comedy either.
MPAA rating: R for pervasive language, graphic nudity, drug use, sexual content and violence
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes
Playing: In wide release