I suppose it’s inevitable that eventually Seth Rogen would tire of playing the same lovable stoner goofball in each of his tri-monthly releases. Caveats aside, Pineapple Express didn’t prepare anyone for Observe and Report — a sort of Bizarro World version of Paul Blart: Mall Cop — in which Rogen plays Ronnie Barnhardt, the Travis Bickle for the Judd Apatow age.
Barnhardt is the head of security at his local mall, who spends his time pining after Anna Faris’ make-up counter girl Brandi, giving motivational speeches to his security underlings, and propping up his alcoholic mother (the sublime Celia Weston). When a streaker starts terrifying patrons, Ronnie finds his raison d’être in catching the pervert before he strikes again.
So far, so Mall Cop. But Ronnie’s delusions of grandeur aren’t of the traditionally innocent sort, and his efforts to impress Brandi are a little less than wholesome, even for the star of Knocked Up. Rather unsettlingly, it’s never quite made clear which aspects of his personality or behaviour are supposed to be found amusing: Bipolar disorder? Obvious (though never explicated) learning difficulties? A willingness to embrace violence at every turn? Date rape?
That last possibility has brought Observe and Report to the attention of a myriad roundtable discussion shows that have endlessly — and quite obviously futilely — debated the morality of the “rape scene”. I say obviously futilely because clearly, Barnhardt does not inhabit the same moral universe as the rest of us. To him, ethics means not stealing some cheap jewellery — but getting high and hospitalising some rogue skateboarders is a-okay. And I put “rape scene” in condescending quotation marks because in this dubious ethical landscape, consent is sort of conceded.
Really, every aspect of Observe and Report defies the principles of criticism, and for the simple reason that criticism would necessitate over-thinking. Germaine Greer can argue with Mark Kermode all she likes as to whether or not Brandi drunkenly slurring, “Don’t stop, motherfucker” is really an invitation to continue carnal proceedings, but I suspect director Jody Hill just put the scene in because he thought it would be funny. And that’s more or less the score for the film’s entirety: fairly unpleasant events transpiring, and Hill daring you to over-analyse. If it weren’t for such a great supporting cast (Weston, Ray Liotta, Michael Peña), there’d really be no excuse for such a misanthropic notion of comedy.