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Seth Rogen Redefines the American Anti-Hero in Observe and Report

Fresh off the success of his recently renewed HBO series Eastbound & Down, which cast Danny McBride as a degenerate ex-baseball star whose boozing and athletic decline earned him a one-way ticket out of the game, director Jody Hill returns with yet another portrait of an unlovable loser in the mall cop-meets-Taxi Driver fantasy Observe and Report.

I say fantasy rather than comedy for two reasons. For starters, Observe and Report exists in a reality purely of its own creation. Ronnie Barnhardt, the grim psychopath with a thousand-yard scowl played by Seth Rogen, is clearly better suited to a prison cell than a shopping mall, a fact the movie acknowledges but otherwise ignores. And though his violent outbursts and delusions of grandeur are often laughable, it would be misleading to classify Hill’s latest offering simply as farce.

If anything, the experience of watching Observe and Report is very much akin to rubbernecking, minus the spinal contortion: It invites us to watch Ronnie unravel as he ineffectually patrols the mall, attempts a truly uncomfortable romance with a heartless salesgirl (Anna Faris, who continues to amaze) and butts heads with the cops. There’s redemption in the offing, but little joy. For Ronnie, life is a succession of failures, some with consequences, most without.

Yet I enjoyed watching him for reasons that are almost impossible explain. But let me try. Even during Ronnie’s lowest moments – among them, his date with Brandi (Faris), which ends in a conquest that most would deem criminal – there are darkly comical undertones to the surreal absurdity of his plight. He wants desperately to be a real cop, which would give him a license to, as he puts it, destroy people. All he asks in return for his humble service is the gratitude of the entire human race.

There is a telling line in the movie, delivered by Ben Best, who co-wrote Eastbound & Down and Hill’s 2006 debut, the equally unsettling Foot Fist Way. “I thought this was gonna be funny,” he says as Ray Liotta’s sadistic detective informs Ronnie that his police-academy application has been denied. “It’s just sad.”

The same could almost be said of the movie itself, which invites us into a world of bitterly unhappy people and rubs our noses in their failings. It’s disquieting and eerily perverse, but somehow, despite itself, very funny.