Do not observe (unless you really want to)

“Observe and Report” tells the story of Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen), head of security at the Forest Ridge Mall who takes his job way too seriously. When an anonymous flasher repeatedly exposes himself to patrons in the parking lot, Ronnie is disappointed in his security team’s lack of responsive action. But when the pervert flashes make-up counter employee and Ronnie’s dream girl, Brandi (Anna Faris), Ronnie makes it his own personal mission to take him down at any cost.

Thwarting Ronnie’s dream of saving the day is Detective Harrison (an underused Ray Liotta), a real police officer who is called into the mall to investigate its increasing criminal activity. Now in order to prove himself, Ronnie must catch the pervert and save Brandi before Detective Harrison and his officers manage to steal his thunder.

“Observe and Report” is a tough movie to pin down. On one hand, it’s a surprisingly satisfying black comedy that goes a little further than most in its quest to make an audience laugh at something that, out of context, would be way more than just distasteful. For example, if you see this film, you very well may find yourself laughing out loud at what basically amounts to onscreen date rape. Whether or not you’re in for that sort of comedy is up to you, but I found myself reconsidering more than a few morbid chuckles. If that’s not good black comedy, I don’t know what is.

Unfortunately, “Observe and Report” fails in almost every other way. The film’s more conventional attempts at comedy are extremely hit-or-miss (mostly miss), and way too much of its humor relies on repeated vulgarity. There were more awkward silences in the theater than laughs when I saw the film, and that isn’t a good sign for a movie billed as a comedy.

The movie’s main flaw is that it tries too hard to have it both ways. Writer/director Jody Hill (‘The Foot Fist Way”) can’t seem to decide between a dark, comedic character study (think funny “Taxi Driver”) and a contemporary comedy. The film could easily have done without Ronnie’s cartoonish mall security posse and blatantly quotable one-liners. A movie about an overly serious security guard would have been a lot funnier if everyone around him wasn’t just as weird.

Hill’s stylistic combination ultimately leads to a fragmented, unfunny movie that tries too hard when it shouldn’t and not hard enough when it should. Too often, the film will cut from an uncomfortable Ronnie-driven scene to a jokey mall cop crew scene. It doesn’t just screw with the pacing, it throws off the audience, and it doesn’t work the way it hopes to.

It doesn’t help at all that Ronnie Barnhardt is so impossible to identify with. His coworkers, family, love interest, and enemies are no different (except Nell- a food court employee played by Collette Wolfe- who is almost upbeat and adorable enough to redeem the entire film). It’s very difficult to enjoy a movie if you don’t like any of its characters, and “Observe and Report” doesn’t offer much else.

The Verdict: “Observe and Report” is a frustrating movie to watch. You can see how much potential is right under the surface, but it’s covered with vulgar one-liners and goofy secondary characters. Seth Rogen does a commendable job playing a complex character with some serious issues. He even manages to earn the chronically unlikable Ronnie a little bit of pity at a certain point in the film.

The movie’s extraordinarily satisfying final few minutes only prove to the audience how much better “Observe and Report” could have been with just a little more focus. As it stands, however, I can’t recommend this film as anything other than an okay rental choice on an otherwise boring summer weekend.

2 stars (out of 4)

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