'Observe' the seamier side of the mall

Seth Rogen vehicle drives every joke into the gutter.

April 10, 2009 

There's something sour and just a little sad about "Observe and Report," a Seth Rogen vehicle that would like you to think that the line between Everyman and Pathetic Loser is hilariously thin.

Well, I say the line is fatter than Hollywood realizes. It's one thing to celebrate the decidedly nonheroic, average, nonspecial, ordinary Joes among us. Refreshing, even. That's who most of us are: living small lives, not going to glamorous parties, just getting by.

But it's another thing to delight in and mock characters that are just basically pitiful.

If the idea of poking fun at incontinent alcoholics, date rape, abusive cops and mentally ill people going off their meds puts a grin on your face, then "Observe and Report" might be a peppy enough outing.

Maybe.

Even for those who relish no-holds-barred humor, there's a point when the most outrageous, caustic comedy can slide from cutting and absurd to just plain mean.

With its premise of a lackluster mall security guard trapped in American-shopping purgatory, some filmgoers might make the mistake of thinking of "Observe and Report" as a good-natured extension of the supremely silly and strictly family-friendly "Paul Blart: Mall Cop." It isn't anywhere close to the same genre. The humor in director Jody Hill's film is dark, the gags adult-oriented and the nudity -- which mostly consists of an overweight middle-aged male bouncing up and down the mall -- not exactly of the teen-sex-comedy variety.

You know you're in for a look at the baser side of human nature when Hill tries to make a heartwarming moment out of a revelation from Rogen's character's mother (played by Celia Weston) that she regularly soils herself.

A Hallmark mother-son greeting-card moment it's not.

Discouraging and sordid from the start, the film follows the disillusioned existence of Ronnie Barnhardt (Rogen), chief of security at a tired mall. Leading a requisite small band of misfits, including clueless chubby Asian twin officers and a lispy Latino, Ronnie is desperate to track down a flasher who has been plaguing customers at the mall.

Other plot threads involve Ronnie's massive crush on a disinterested cosmetics saleswoman (Anna Faris) and his rivalry with a mean-spirited police officer (Ray Liotta) called in to investigate the flasher incident. But mostly, "Observe and Report" chronicles Ronnie's continual battle with his own mediocrity.

This could have been an interesting characterization. Ronnie is a blustery mix of self-confidence and social ineptitude, and there are enough winceworthy moments -- when he's bumbling through a flirtation with a cinnamon-bun-stand worker (Collette Wolf), for example -- when the obvious flaws in his social DNA engender sympathy and even reflection on the part of the audience. And Rogen has a low-key comic timing that hits the mark more than a few times.

But more often his character, brutal and mentally ill, brandishes an ugly side that obliterates the film's more nuanced observations on being a misfit in society. The violence, which is all committed by uniformed officers, is fierce and disturbing, and the sex jokes (complete with a vomit-on-the-pillow gag) more menacing than lighthearted.

Perhaps it's making too much of today's current economic woes to say that in a dismal and probably unintended way, the film matches the tenor of the times. With its stridently generic depiction of mall life -- the bland (and anonymous) department cosmetics counter, the listless "Chops, Lobster and Steaks" eatery, the bad coffee, the smarmy kiosk salesman, the army of unattractive extras -- and the fumbling inadequacies of the main character, the film on one level lampoons the crass commercialism of American culture.

Whatever the deeper meaning, one thing is clear: The producers would like you to think of "Mall Cop." I think of it more as "Sad Security Guard."

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