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Mall-adroit

Seth Rogen’s a terrifying anti-hero in ‘Observe and Report.’

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'OBSERVE AND REPORT.'
  • 'OBSERVE AND REPORT.'

A recent New York Times profile of Jody Hill included a description of one of the director's earliest scripts, and one with which Hill hoped to break into Hollywood. It was called “Drip Dry Love,” and it was about a guy who discovers he has chlamydia and must spend a day warning former partners.

Needless to say, it didn't spark a bidding war. Still, Hill's remained unwaveringly committed to the comic potential of patently unlikable characters. His first film, “The Foot Fist Way,” made on a shoestring budget and released in 2006, starred a then largely unknown Danny McBride, as a delusional and despotic Taekwondo instructor in a suburban shopping mall, who spends a good bit of the film picking on kids. More recently, Hill and McBride teamed to produce “East Bound and Down,” an HBO mini-series about a bully of a former professional baseball pitcher who's forced to return to his hometown and take a job and live with his brother. He's little better. In a memorable scene early in the show, he negotiates, on the phone with a hooker, whether he can wear a “Scream” mask, while his sister-in-law cleans up his empty beer cans.

Still, in both projects, when the characters' macho bluster deflates, even after all the terrible things they've done and said, Hill, with amazing deftness, presents them in ways we can't help but sympathize.

Hill's less interested in pathos in “Observe and Report,” his new comedy about Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen), a mall security guard who's deluded himself into thinking he's humanity's last protector. For Ronnie, an overweight man in the mall parking lot flashing his naughty bits serves as a stand-in for all that is vile and evil in the world, while Brandi (Anna Farris), a vapid, bleached-blonde make-up counter girl, represents a world worth saving.

Rogen, to his credit, is far removed here from the caustic but cuddly man-child he's played in every other movie lately. He's a different kind of man-child. One who, yes, drives a motorcycle, still lives with his mother and has martial arts posters in his room. But also one who's bipolar, who's gun obsessed and who has Cheney-ian sense of justice. One who, at the smallest provocation, tases a salesman parked in a loading zone. Who, on a cocaine-fueled rampage, beats skater kids senselessly. Who harasses a Muslim kiosk minder (Aziz Ansari). He's someone you probably recognize and are frightened of.

Wait, you thought this was a comedy? Hill's taken his terrible people doing terrible things formula and pushed it presumably as far as Warner Bros., in some cases unbelievably, would let him. We laugh at Ronnie as he misguidedly tries to wrest control of the flasher investigation from a real police investigator (Ray Liotta). We laugh when Ronnie's perpetually drunk mom (a terrific Celia Weston) tells him that, yes, it is definitely his fault that his dad left them. We laugh when Ronnie punches, for no reason, Ansari's Muslim mall worker. We even laugh when Ronnie grinds on what at least initially appears to be a drunkenly passed out Brandi.

We do?

Yep. That's Hill's thing, and in interviews, he's been pretty straight up about it. He's hoping to trick audiences into laughing at really horrible situations, before they realize what's really going on. Most people go to the movies for unchallenging sentiment or comedy. Some go to be provoked. Hill wants you to leave feeling a little bit icky.

Still, the recklessness of the film can be thrilling, and Rogen's never been better than in this suburban, Bush-era take on Travis Bickle.

 

 

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