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Observe and Report: Breaking New Ground in Inappropriateness

So you’ve seen Paul Blart: Mall Cop and wouldn’t mind seeing something similar this weekend? Then stay far away from Observe and Report.

Both movies feature security-guard chubsters whizzing around on hilarious vehicles (a Segway in the earlier movie and a modified golf cart in this one) who flirt with pretty girls working at kiosks in a mall. Both movies show these wannabe cops tangling with skateboarders and jiggling their way through obstacle courses. But the two films have about as much in common in their souls as 42nd Street and Midnight Cowboy.

Seth Rogen stars in a sinister, alarming, even gory study of a psychopath who is essentially the Travis Bickle of the food court. The script is wall-to-wall with filthy language, drug abuse, and gratuitous violence.

So why did I like the movie? Because I see a lot of them, and rarely does one catch me off-guard as frequently as this one. It’s so stylishly unpredictable, with its crazy turns, its punk interludes, its hilarious asides (a guy driving a getaway car pauses to tune his radio to a song by the Little River Band), and its outrageously loathsome characters, that it reminded me of the work of Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson. When a cop in the film says, “I thought that this was gonna be kinda funny but it’s actually kinda sad,” he is providing the motto for half the scenes.

The Rogen character, Ronnie Barnhardt, is bizarrely fascinating in his awkwardness. On a date (to which he wears a Cosby Show-style sweater and a gold necklace), he tries to make a connection with the girl by saying, “I like to drink fast too.” His mother (Celia Weston) is an alcoholic who — when Ronnie asks, “Do you think it was my fault that dad left? — replies, “Definitely.”

Ronnie is a racist who hates gays and treats his rent-a-cop job as though he were in the Special Forces in Vietnam. He calls a brown-skinned guy who works in the mall “Saddam Hussein of Iraq” and charges him with trying to blow up the Chick-Fil-A. The guy responds, “Why the f— would I want to blow up the Chick-Fil-A? It’s f—ing delicious!”

When a flasher pops up and starts bothering women in the mall parking lot, Ronnie goes on TV to promise, “I will murder you.” Things seem to be going Ronnie’s way, though, when the flasher accosts the perfume-counter girl (Anna Faris) he has a crush on. A local detective (Ray Liotta) tries to reassure the shaken girl, but Ronnie tells her the flasher is likely to come back and kill her. He also tells the real cop to back away from his case: “I’m a cook and I’m servin’ up justice.”

Writer-director Jody Hill and his cast are willing to go anywhere for a laugh. Hill’s previous work includes the indie comedy The Foot Fist Way (dark), the HBO series East Bound and Down (quite dark) and now this movie (black hole). Though the movie is probably twice as violent as it needs to be and the story is hardly credible (it’s hard to believe any mall would employ such a freak), comedy has to keep pushing out into new boundaries and break new ground in inappropriateness.

Ronnie’s anger is out of control. For example, a police department psychiatric exam goes awry when Ronnie confesses he wants a badge because he wants to blow away a lot of people. But anger, even the really scary kind, has an element of absurdity to it that Hill and Rogen are able to tap into, which helps make the lead character a tiny bit sympathetic.

Rogen is still developing as an actor, but he is more than capable in a part worthy of someone as accomplished as Philip Seymour Hoffman. It requires Rogen to bring across some reason for us to hope his mall stint doesn’t end in total humiliation, and he largely succeeds. He makes us root for him, for instance, when the Liotta character leaves him in a neighborhood full of drug dealers and Ronnie is forced to fight his way out.

Observe and Report is such an unclassifiable, hard-to-market oddity that it’s bound to flop. But it’s also a milestone for two exciting young talents — its writer-director and its star.

Observe and Report

Directed by Jody Hill

Starring: Seth Rogen, Ray Liotta, Anna Faris

3 stars/ 4

86 minutes/Rated R