It is probably too early to tell whether Paul Blart heralded the arrival of a new genre, the suburban mall cop film, but judging by Observe and Report, the retail security procedural doesn’t offer terribly fertile ground.
As the racist, homophobic, sexually harassing, borderline psychotic head of a crack team of five, Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) runs a tight mall. Like all men in his movie situation, he longs to carry a legitimate shield and a loaded sidearm, but as he prepares his academy application, he must content himself with an itchy Taser finger. When a serial flasher invades his workplace, Ronnie spots an opportunity to show his mettle, but standing in his way is a police detective (Ray Liotta, admirably and comically keeping a straight face) who will do anything to keep our protagonist off the local force.
Writer-director Jody Hill deploys the same squirmy sense of humor he brought to his promising debut, The Foot Fist Way (2006). Hill’s sick jokes, however, lose a lot of their charm when hitched to a generic location (New Mexico), a bigger budget, and a trendy lead actor. Personally, this reviewer has been tired of Seth Rogen’s schlub routine since he waddled his way through Knocked Up. And I’m similarly weary of complaining that the ingenious Anna Faris — here, as a cosmetics counter bimbo — is the best thing about whatever it is she is in. There are some inspired moments throughout, most of them coming from Faris, Rogen’s creepy, Jheri-curled second-in-command (Michael Peña), and a beleaguered coffee slinger played by Collette Wolfe, who also stole scenes in The Foot Fist Way as a deadpan foil.
In contrast to his previous outing, Hill doesn’t appear to be in control of his twisted material. The one-liners scored off Ronnie’s lush mom (Celia Weston) are sometimes hilarious and sometimes unduly cruel. And the grass-coke-heroin binge Peña and Rogen go on (in montage, of course) is only funny until someone gets hurt. That would be the skaters in the parking lot, whom the security guards beat the living daylights out of with their own boards. Hill might think it is transgressive and amusing to show rent-a-cops beating down innocent little rippers, but that just means he hasn’t seen any of the homemade documentary videos widely available on this thing called YouTube.