Review: Observe and Report

Think "Travis Bickle: Mall Cop" and you'll have some idea of what to expect from "Observe and Report," writer-director Jody Hill's shockingly and sometimes discomfortingly funny comedy about an unstable security guard who views himself as vigilant protector - and, occasionally, avenging angel - while patrolling a suburban shopping mall. Taking a setup that could have been played for sitcom jokiness and family-friendly slapstick, Hill attempts something much darker, if not downright transgressive, with a pic bound to divide auds and critics into love-it-or-leave-it camps when it opens April 10. It's a gamble that might pay off handsomely for Warners. Or not.

With his hair cropped short, his waistline expanded and his overall vibe suggesting less lovable schlub than fascistic thug, Seth Rogen makes no effort to claim aud sympathy with a nervy lead performance that's in perfect sync with the pic itself. Rogen keeps the aud off-balance in ways that aren't always pleasurable, often indicating that, at any moment, funny business might devolve into serious mayhem - which, on at least three occasions, it does.

Rogen plays Ronnie Barnhardt, security chief at Forest Ridge Mall, a terse, tough-talking fellow who still lives at home with his alcoholic mom (Celia Weston), nurses a crush on a bosomy makeup-counter salesclerk (Anna Faris) and commands the other guards on his watch with the intensity of a Marine sergeant in a war zone.

When the mall is repeatedly stalked by a flasher, Ronnie views the perv as an affront to all that is decent and wholesome in Forest Ridge Mall. He also welcomes the hunt for this unwelcome visitor as a way of proving his potential to become a real police officer. Trouble is, someone who's already a real police officer, the cynical and unsympathetic Det. Harrison (Ray Liotta), is called in by mall management to handle the situation.

For Ronnie, Harrison is an interloper in his jurisdiction. For Harrison, Ronnie is a klutzy rent-a-cop to be humored, then heckled.

Despite all the gleeful vulgarity and non-PC humor of the opening scenes, and despite all the clear signs that Ronnie has a ludicrously exaggerated (and entirely unjustified) sense of self-worth, it's not until around the 20-minute mark that writer-director Hill reveals just how unconventional he intends "Observe and Report" to be. As a prank, Harrison drops Ronnie off in a rough neighborhood, to give the security guard a taste of "real cop" life. What follows is a sequence that is all the more hilarious because the violence is so seriously brutal.

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