This past weekend at shopping institutions around the country people were willing to fight for the deals that they coveted. Whatever merchandise that inspires the mad dash towards violence is irrelevant, what matters is the lack of order. Throughout the nation’s shopping institutions there is one group that toes the line between order and chaos, ensuring that deals may be secured in peace – the mall security guard. As a leading man Seth Rogen built his career upon playing likable stoner/slacker types. Playing against type and putting his likability and bankability on the line, Rogen collaborated with writer-director Jody Hill for 2009’s twisted comedy Observe and Report, a bleak take on the mall security guard.
Jody Hill is best known for being one of the creative forces behind Eastbound and Down, an HBO comedy about a baseball player’s depraved fall from grace. Between Eastbound and Down, Observe and Report, and his debut feature The Fist Foot Way, Hill is intrigued by characters that alternate between excess and delusions, and the comedy comes from when these characters invade the space of people who reside in the real world. Where Eastbound’s Kenny Powers was once a figure of some import, Ronnie Barnhardt (Rogen) of Observe and Report has never obtained the height of success that he sees himself. He’s a lonely guy on a variety of psychotropic medications living with his alcoholic mother. When a flasher starts terrorizing the patrons of his mall, Ronnie believes that his life now has meaning. While Observe and Report on its surface seems like a farce about a delusional mall security guard, it’s actually a dark examination of power and authority.
For the big, lumbering, and idiotic Ronnie the fine line between protector and destroyer is an impossible balancing act. When the local police are called in to investigate the flasher and later some robberies, Ronnie bungles the investigation with his predisposed racism. The lead officer on the case, Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta), explodes at Ronnie for his incompetence and time wasting antics. All this does is inspire Ronnie to seek out employment with the local police department – to legitimize his authority, or so he thinks. Of course, Ronnie’s deteriorated mental state provides him the biggest obstacle to joining the boys in blue.
There’s no greater area that Ronnie’s delusions of power and authority are woefully misplaced than his relationship with Brandy (Anna Farris), the party girl cosmetics counter employee and object Ronnie’s desires. When Brandy is exposed to the flasher, Ronnie makes it his personal quest to save and protect the sanctity of Brandy. As much as Ronnie believes his mission to protect is one of nobility, it merely serves the selfish purpose of validation. Brandy inadvertently gives Ronnie some validation when she agrees to go to dinner with Ronnie. Over the course of dinner Ronnie buys Brandy numerous shots of hard liquor and passes off some of his powerful prescription medication at her request. When Ronnie returns the heavily intoxicated Brandy at her house, Ronnie proceeds to have his way with her. To be clear, Observe and Report doesn’t mine date rape for humor. This sequence, horrific as it is, finds Ronnie committing the ultimate abuse of power, but in his warped mind it is a tender, loving moment. He believes that he’s being rewarded for his efforts to defend the sanctity of this woman when, in fact, he’s committing the worst violation of an individual’s body.
It’s not hard to see why this film could have its fair share of detractors and haters. It goes to great lengths to make its characters unlikeable, indefensible, and downright frightening. Ronnie Barnhardt is, more than anything else, the embodiment of the right-wing power fantasy that has been on the rise since early 2009. A lowly mall security guard with delusions of grandeur, Ronnie is even lobbying his employer for the authorization for the guards to carry firearms. His inability to understand the difference between protector and destroyer finds Ronnie as a comical George Zimmerman. Armed and assured of his own righteousness, Ronnie is just the kind of person who would trail people walking home, call the police, ignore their instructions, and proceed to engage in a violent struggle. With current events bringing to light the dangers of abuse of authority, it may be hard for many viewers to find the comedy wrapped within the dark truths that reside in Observe and Report. Much like Jim Carrey challenged audiences by playing against type in The Cable Guy, Seth Rogen goes one step further with Observe and Report. It can be hard to find the humor in dark truths about our society. Luckily, Observe and Report has no trouble there.