Amazing, isn't it, how often different Hollywood studios release essentially the same films at the same time? Think of "A Bug's Life" and "Antz" or "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact" or the two Truman Capote films, or any number of others. I mean, what are the odds of two screenwriters simultaneously coming up with the idea of a comedy about shopping-mall guards? It's just a coincidence, I guess, that 2009 saw "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" and "Observe and Report" within months of each other. And need I mention that both of them are pretty lame?
Both movies feature unlikely heroes, oafish dunces, really, losers who distinguish themselves almost through sheer accident. The big difference, though, is that while the "Paul Blart" movie is fairly tame, even gentle, "Observe and Report" is crude and harsh, their ratings--PG and R--summing up their tone. Now, you would think the R content might have provided a needed edge sorely missing from the rather bland "Paul Blart" film, yet "Observe and Report" is merely smutty for the sake of smut. And it's not even good high-definition smut.
Jody Hill wrote and directed "Observe and Report," his first major film since doing the low-budget comedy "The Foot Fist Way" in 2006. Since I didn't care for the earlier picture, I didn't have high hopes for this next one. It didn't surprise me, either, that the major difference between them is the slicker-looking appearance of "Observe and Report," coming as it did on an $18,000,000 budget, which is probably about 18,000,000 times more money than Hill spent on "The Foot Fist Way."
As his star, Hill got Seth Rogen, one of 2009's comic actors du jour. I like Rogen; he most often projects a sweet, Everyman disposition, a good comedian's subtle timing, and an appropriately droll reaction to outrageous situations. I especially liked his work in "The 40 Year Old Virgin," "Knocked Up," and "The Pineapple Express." But comic actors have their ups and downs, if you remember ones like Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy falling into recent decline. In "Observe and Report," Rogen does what he can but doesn't get any help from a script that goes straight for the lowest-possible laughs.
It's hard to tell just what kind of humor Hill was going for in "Observe and Report." It's a dark, witless comedy that uses anything it can to get a rise from its audience, mostly relying on foul language to do the trick, even when there's no need for it. Does Hill really believe that having his characters repeat the f-word 800 times a minute is funny? Or that two adults facing down one another with the epithets "F... you!," "No, f... you" over and over again is at all amusing?
Not that there aren't any laughs. The opening montage of "typical" mall shoppers gives us a hint of what the film could have been, with shots of shoplifters, obese couples eating ice cream, greedy raffle players, and kids fighting. Rogen plays Ronnie Barnhardt, the head of mall security, overseeing all of this with an air of supremely smug and misplaced authority. After that, unfortunately, it's all downhill.
Ronnie is a clod, a delusional idiot who lives with his alcoholic mother (Celia Weston). How he got a job as a security guard at all, let alone head of security, is anybody's guess. He's clearly angry at being a nobody, and the badge and uniform go to his head, making him think of himself as somebody important. His answer to any problem is to yell, curse, punch, or shoot, occasionally at the same time, and any number of scenes involve him beating people up, smashing skateboarders across the face with their own skateboards, or taking out squads of druggies, hoodlums, and even city policemen in almost surrealistic sequences of intensely unfunny violence. I have no idea why the filmmakers thought this Neanderthal was humorous, and Rogen can do nothing to make the mean-spirited jerk likable.
As the movie begins, we see a foulmouthed flasher annoying mall patrons and upsetting Ronnie no end, although, perhaps as a part of the movie's bizarre nature, Ronnie's language is just as obscene as the flasher's. In fact, Ronnie can't utter a complete sentence without an f-word, even when the local TV station interviews him about the pervert. What's more, profane rap lyrics accompany most of the action, so if words offend you, beware.
Anyway, Ronnie makes catching the flasher his life's ambition; it becomes an obsession with him. However, he becomes jealous when the mall administrator brings in a real policeman, Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta), to investigate the case, and the two men spar for half the film.
To further complicate matters, we get a romantic interest of sorts. Ronnie grows infatuated with a slutty airhead, Brandi (Anna Faris), who runs the cosmetics counter and won't give him the time of day. Ronnie is such a ninny and so head-over-heels for Brandi, he doesn't realize that Nell (Collette Wolfe), the pretty girl who runs the coffee counter, has a crush on him. Nell is the closest thing to a decent human being in the whole picture, but do you think Ronnie notices? As I say, he's an idiot.
Despite the money behind the production, the movie has all the earmarks of a mediocre indie product trying too self-consciously to be cute and coy and clever. Hill goes so far as to use Danny McBride, his old star from "The Foot Fist Way," in a small part as an unamusing drug dealer. I wouldn't doubt if McBride had been as big a star as Rogen, Hill would have chosen him as his lead.
"Observe and Report" gets increasingly bleak and ludicrous as it goes along, until it ends on a sentimental yet still rude and vulgar note. The movie is relentless.
The video quality is only so-so in this single-layer BD25, VC-1 transfer. The disc preserves the movie's original aspect ratio, 2.40:1, with colors that are far brighter than real life, though probably appropriate for an outright farce such as this one. The picture is not particularly sharp or clear for high definition, the general appearance a little grainy and noisy, with the image's bright glare tending to obscure some of its deficiencies.
In its favor, while far from perfect, the Blu-ray is certainly better defined than its standard-def counterpart, something especially noticeable if you compare a sort of built-in eye chart side-by-side from the two versions. It's a paper target with writing on it that Ronnie uses for shooting practice. From my seating position, I could make out the writing on the target quite clearly in high-def but not at all in standard def. So, if your reason for buying Blu-ray is to read paper targets, here you go.
The audio engineers reproduce the soundtrack in lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1, with non-TrueHD systems defaulting to regular Dolby Digital. In any case, the sound is loud, often forward, dynamic, to be sure, but with a narrow stereo spread and very limited surround activity.
The bonus materials on the disc are almost all exclusive to high-def Blu-ray. They begin with a picture-in-picture commentary track with director Hill and stars Rogen and Faris. Next, we get several featurettes, starting with "Basically Training," six minutes on the main character's rage issues; followed by "Forest Ridge Mall: Security Recruitment Video," three minutes; and "Seth Rogen and Anna Faris: Unscripted," seven minutes. The main bonus items conclude with seventeen additional or extended scenes, twenty-seven minutes in all, and a twelve-minute gag reel.
In addition, the package comes with BD Live features; a digital copy disc (standard definition, Windows media compatible only, and provided for a limited time; the offer expires September 22, 2010); twenty-four scene selections; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages; French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; English captions for the hearing impaired; and a slipcover for the double Blu-ray case.
A friend, Amanda Warden, wrote to me saying, "I tried watching this movie drunk, and it actually killed my buzz it was so bad." Seriously, if you liked Hill's earlier film or if you like the work of the comedy troupe Broken Lizard, you're apt to enjoy this picture as well. Otherwise, the whole thing might be a chore, high def or no.