Movie and television history has its share of lovably dimwitted-law enforcement officers, from Barney Fife to, recently, Paul Blart. Enjoying the new comedy “Observe and Report” depends a lot on how much you can stand the unlovable variety — especially if you've sat, recently, through the similarly plotted “Mall Cop.”
Seth Rogen embodies this other type as Ronnie, a security guard at a mall in Albuquerque (New Mexico's ample film incentives have certainly succeeded in attracting projects). He's a loudmouth with an ugly, cropped haircut and a rude, crude demeanor. Anyone who's witnessed the preening buffoons stalking writer and director Jody Hill's previous work, “The Foot Fist Way” and “Eastbound and Down,” will recognize the type. Ronnie specializes in saying really stupid things and looking really foolish. Most people go out of their way to avoid both, but Ronnie is completely oblivious, and everyone around him pretty much acts the same way, especially the rogue's gallery of fellow mall guards who look up to him.
“You're expendable,” Ronnie tells the twin portly Asian guys (John and Matthew Yuan) on his force. They nod. “God gave me two of you so if one of you dies I've got another.” They nod again. The moment gets a big laugh but also is an example of the bargain “Observe and Report” strikes. Ronnie says stuff that's accidentally dumb. And he says stuff that's intentionally dumb, and maybe even clever. The difference seems arbitrary and isn't supposed to be noticed, not by the audience and especially not by anyone in the movie. Ronnie is always shockingly candid, but it's only for our benefit. In his world he might as well be talking to the mannequins.
Two menaces lurk among them: A burglar ripping off the stores at night and a serial flasher who raises Ronnie's ire even before he victimizes the mall cop's dream date, Brandi (Anna Faris), a cosmetics girl at an unnamed department store. Ronnie sees these crimes as his cases, the solving of which are guaranteed to bring fame and fortune to his modest life. The fantasy is dashed like a spilt refill, however, by the arrival of a real detective, Harrison (Ray Liotta), the only person who seems to notice Ronnie's mental deficiencies, setting the stage for an unusual showdown of witlessness.
But just as there are no forests or ridges anywhere near the Forest Ridge Mall, there's no ultimate point to any of Ronnie's strivings, at least not in terms of story or character. Neither are there are observations in this report on malls or their denizens — which would probably have been awkward anyway, given the movie's dependence on these very places and people for a big box office. Ronnie could be a truck driver or a basketball coach or a convenience store clerk and his whatever-sticks, steam-of-consciousness boorishness would pass easily among them.
The movie is so relentlessly outrageous it's as easy to be carried along as it is to be offended. When Ronnie's dreams of becoming a real cop and getting the girl evaporate, his buddy security guard, Dennis (Michael Pena, one of the many stereotypical ethnic characters), takes him on a feverish daylong joyride through his world of coke-snorting, dressing-room-peeping and skateboarder-stomping that concludes with an uproarious climax worth the price of admission.
Hill has made widely reported claims of homage to “Taxi Driver,” with Ronnie as a comically perverted Travis Bickle. But reflecting on such things during the movie will cause little more than a shrug. So what? Ronnie isn't a psychopath of any consequence, and amid the laughs you wonder why Hill refused to delve into this ripe setting of Americana any deeper than did “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.” Hill hates malls, he recently told the New York Times, so it's surprising he has nothing to say about them.
The chase-filled finale in “Observe and Report” is about 10 minutes of full-frontal male nudity, which is apparently the new go-to joke, if the prevalence of penises in comedies these days is any indication. So it doesn't seem gratuitous so much as unoriginal. Earlier a minor character (Ben Best) hides in a closet to listen to Liotta's police detective humiliate and demoralize Ronnie, only to emerge halfway through the scene, unable to take it. “I thought this was going to be funny,” he admits, “but it was actually kind of sad.” It's a good line, and likely an intentional in joke. Still, it hits a little too close. There's not much to report here but glib vulgarity. (R) 86 min. HHHII S