396. Observe and Report

★★

While “Eastbound & Down” made him a comedic household name, “Observe and Report” was the first true indication that Jody Hill’s acerbic humor tasted best on the tongues of small screen viewers. The premise for this movie would be best suited in a mini-series format, where one, eight-episode season would cover all the Dunkin’ Donuts cop drama and crumby Chick-fil-a emotional arcs just before mall doors closed for the night. Presented as it is, though, “Observe and Report” slogs like an overweight rent-a-cop, only occasionally arresting us with genuine moments of humor.

We follow the mall-time misadventures of Ronnie (Seth Rogen), an overzealous security guard at a ramshackle shopping center. His bursting belly has a hunger for justice, his cholesterol-clogged heart a yearning for love. When a trench-coated pervert flashes his private parts at unsuspecting customers in the parking lot, Ronnie sees the incident as an opportunity to declare himself the savior these helpless shoppers so desperately need.

Except, there’s already a real cop on the case, Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta). Arriving straight from the LAPD with a no-nonsense attitude in hand, Harrison’s thorough attempts to locate the flasher are derailed by Ronnie’s insatiable thirst for attention. Ronnie soon devotes himself to accomplishing a string of semi-successes. He only gets a half-rejection after asking out Brandi (Anna Faris), the vain make-up girl at a department store, and only gets half-way through his police academy application. As his hopes unravel, he leans on the skinny shoulder of his colleague Dennis (Michael Pena), becoming a new anarchistic twosome with an appetite for destruction.

Somewhere in that premise should be a few decent jokes or almost-quotable lines. But “Observe and Report” has the exact same style of humor as “Vice Principals” and “Eastbound & Down,” where freakish characters say or do things that are inherently bizarre, and we are supposed interpret those words and acts as funny as a result. That style works well on TV, where “Family Guy” viewers have no problem reciting “Shut Up, Meg” for the thousandth time, even though it was never quite funny the first.

But on film, it feels like a laughing commitment we’re not quite willing to make. It also doesn’t help that “Observe and Report” breaks the first rule of comedy movies by not making any of its characters likable (save for Nell, an earnest food cashier played by Collette Wolfe). But there’s still an admirable artistic accomplishment here by Jody Hill, that his film has such a distinct, albeit curmudgeony, personality that it’s impossible to compare it to any comedy of its time. He succeeded in his vision of making the “Taxi Driver” of shopping mall movies, giving us salt when we’re begging for sugar. That might leave a sour taste in your mouth, but at least you will taste something.

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