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, two years after its Sundance twirl first caught the attention of cheerleaders Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. 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 like a doughy Marshall Will Kane, his tin star fashioned out of tinfoil. 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 midsentence, 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 (played by Ray Liotta, clearly from an entirely different film) whose mall-perv investigation Ronnie has been interfering with. As he does, a fellow detective (played by Hill's frequent collaborator 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 midspeech, "but it's just sad." After Observe and Report's recent South by Southwest Film Festival debut, Hill's old friend, 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." It's an almost harrowing scene: Ronnie, drenched in sweat, writhes on top of her — he's bang, bang, banging away at what looks to be a corpse clad only in a black bra with throw-up clinging to her chin. Finally, after an interminable few seconds, she coughs up a slurred rasp: "Whyyoustoppinmotherfucker?" It's meant as a moment of comic relief: At least Ronnie isn't screwing her totally unconscious. But a date-raping creep is still a date-raping creep, no matter where you draw the line on awareness.
The not-funny-just-sad line is the perfect summation of Hill's entire (small) body of work — it all sounds hilarious on paper, but winds up playing pathetic onscreen. Guys like Ronnie — violent miscreants, power-tripping sociopaths, self-aggrandizing nobodies-next-door — are Hill's specialty. Problem is, you can never tell if Hill likes or loathes his creations — unlike, say, writer-turned-director Robert Siegel, whose The Wrestler and upcoming Big Fan (starring Observe and Report co-star Patton Oswalt) adore their losers and loners. Hill, meanwhile, seems to always be off on the side somewhere, tittering at their misfortune and sneering at how such tiny, insignificant, emasculated men attempt to take up so much space.
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. Rogen isn't as revolting as McBride — he isn't a good enough actor to play anything but variations on goofy-cuddly. Eastbound works for the most part because of McBride, who is 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. Rogen's casting serves only to render Observe & Report that much more of a muddle: It might be the most lovable hateful movie ever made.