What strange fruit do we expect to fall from the Apatow Family Tree? Seemingly, nothing more odd than a genial, likable protagonist or two. Toss in an imperfect but not twisted leading lady. And cameos for the loose cannons with empty holsters. It’s become a sort of ironic comfort zone for moviegoers in the late 2000s.
But with “Observe and Report,” writer and director Jody Hill – who handled the same duties on “The Foot Fist Way” and HBO’s ”Eastbound & Down” — upsets expectation with a darkly comic tale of damaged goods at a shopping mall. Seth Rogen drops his Fozzie Bear as hipster persona to play Ronnie Barnhardt, a peculiar, self important security guard with a God complex. A rampant flasher sets Ronnie into a frenzy as his desire to capture the “pervert” becomes the obsessive focus that coalesces all the disparate parts of his life into what he sees as his crime fighting destiny. Each distinct element becomes intertwined so that Ronnie, the frustrated cop wannabe, harnesses his lust for gun culture, mocks with open disdain the police detective assigned to the case, strives to protect the object of his intense infatuation, Brandi, a slag of a cosmetics counter chick played by Anna Faris, while all the while hoping to make his alcoholic mother proud. He closely resembles Travis Bickle as he patrols the parking lot as an amped golf cart driver. “You Texting to Me?…You Texting to Me?”
Raunchy and a tad emotionally disquieting, “Observe and Report” portrays Ronnie as angry, spiteful and self righteous. He’s perpetually pissed off; and a bi-polar person not prone to taking his meds. As the film proceeds, Rogen’s character becomes darker, especially when he pursues his dream to co-opt his vigilante streak by becoming a police officer. In a trippy scene during his cadet screening, a sincere Ronnie, when asked what inspired him to become a cop, regales a police department psychologist with an elaborate, disturbing dream which ends with him dispensing justice in the violent mowing down of perpetrators. But the delusional Ronnie doesn’t grasp how unsettling his recitation of the vision is; he earnestly, and smugly, sees himself as a crusader while describing the unabashed bloodshed. His is, he proudly intones, “Getting God’s work done.” After he is informed that he won’t be invited to join the police academy, a disbelieving Ronnie is consoled by an acolyte of a colleague, the seemingly childlike Dennis, played cleverly by Michael Peña. Fittingly for a film with such a murky undercurrent, a montage sequence of joyriding hijinks on the job quickly devolves into a bitter Dionysian blur.
The romance between Ronnie and Brandi is decidedly one sided and fittingly debauched. Anna Faris is a comic firecracker as Brandi. Genuinely funny, she brings an artisan’s touch to her zany, narcissistic party hardy persona and her drunken sloppiness is second to none. When Brandi and Ronnie consummate their date, it’s a tipsy dance of comic timing but squirm-inducing as well because Rogen doesn’t undercut Ronnie’s earnestness and Faris isn’t shy about Brandi’s skankiness.
And Ray Liotta as Ronnie’s nemesis, Detective Harrison, shows that he’s as good as the material he’s working with. (He’s on target here; for his excruciating worst, check out his hammy turn in “In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale.”)
The film climaxes with Ronnie capturing the flasher — this sequence of exposed male penis is shot in such excruciating slow motion I thought a Coldplay song would break out on the soundtrack — but, again, his violent tendencies are overreaching as dream becomes reality. In the end, he solves the crime and gets the girl (no, not that one); now if he’d just get some help.
If you take “Observe and Report” and strain it, strain it of everything clever, edgy and funny, you’re left with “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” a fatigued, deflated and impotent comedy.
Paul Blart, like Ronnie Barnhardt, is a mall security guard with a desire to be a police officer who lives at home with his mother. He also shares the house with his pre-teen daughter, Maya (a charming Raini Rodriguez), the smartest, savviest, and not coincidentally, most relatable character in this hodgepodge of comic porridge. Instead of a flasher, Blart (Kevin James) will thwart a hostage crisis to earn his police credibility and win the heart of his wig-selling crush.
Written by James and Nick Bakay seemingly during a lunchbreak from “The King of Queens”and “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch,” respectively, the film is essentially a tiresome, saggy collection of fat jokes. A Segway is an overused prop. And hypoglycemia is referenced (again and again) with so little wit that the movie resembles a Glaxo sales pitch. With undeveloped characters and a plot with all the gravitas of an episode of “The Suite Life of Zach and Cody,” “Paul Blart” is a movie that is so lazy that during the hostage situation at the lockdowned mall which is surrounded by swarms of police, Blart’s daughter sneaks into an unguarded side door…only to become a hostage as well.
James — who’s given too much credit by the story as being a lovable sort with a heart of gold when very little he does justifies this evaluation — is a lethargic screen presence. His love interest, Amy, is played by Jayma Mays, an actress with the eerie physical resemblance and emotional nuance of an Anna Faris Madame Tussaud’s sculpture. The talented Bobby Cannavale shows up for a payday as a pompous SWAT commander who went to high school with Blart and several of the “Happy Madison” repertoire company tear themselves away from craft services long enough to snag a few lines.
Vapidly filmed with less vigor than a mid-season episode of “Gary Unmarried,” “Paul Blart” is a tedious exercise. But none of this is surprising given that this stolid effort was directed by Steve Carr, who is forging a Hall of Fame directing career, if that Hall of Fame enshrined those hitting below the Mendoza Line. His resume includes a Murderers’ Row of mediocrity: “Next Friday;” “Dr. Dolittle 2;” “Daddy Day Care;” “Rebound;” and “Are we Done Yet?” With this track record, one can’t wait to ignore the next James-Carr production, “Do We Care Yet?”