The recent comparisons Rogen’s been making to Taxi Driver aren’t doing this film any favors. Neither for that matter is the fat-guy-BO aftertaste still lingering in filmgoers’ mouths from Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Observe’s Ronnie Barnhardt (Rogen), the bipolar head of mall security nearly rivals John Hinckley in his emulation of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle (and writer-director Jody Hill even cribs a few of Martin Scorsese’s more famous moves). But Blart is best forgotten, and that won’t be too difficult.
Barnhardt is an aging bully, abusing the miniscule bit of authority he has at every opportunity and creeping out his crush, makeup-counter clerk Brandi (Faris), through his special blend of social awkwardness and undeserved cockiness. It’s the kind of role, in other words, that burly Rogen might’ve been stuck playing if there were no such thing as Judd Apatow. It’s also the kind of character that would appear in a normal film for no more than five minutes as an obstacle easily overcome by much more likeable protagonists on their way to face a much more threatening villain.
Here, Barnhardt’s in nearly every frame of film, presented with the minimum redeeming qualities required to keep the audience from walking out, a trick Hill (The Foot Fist Way, Eastbound & Down) has pulled twice before, but one he continues to make work. Barnhardt takes care of his alcoholic mother (Celia Weston) and nearly reveals a tender side when he befriends Toast in a Bun cashier Nell (Wolfe in a sympathetic but hard-to-read role). But after a flasher (Gambill, who should from now on be legally forbidden from taking off his pants for any reason) and a burglary bring the actual police, led by oily Detective Harrison (Liotta), to Barnhardt’s mall, his behavior becomes increasingly transgressive, confusing the audience’s allegiance until no ending, happy or tragic, would be acceptable.
In terms of rule-breaking, Observe and Report’s got nothing on Bickle’s third act meltdown, but that’s exactly how it should be. While Bickle’s a violence-twisted wreck wrought by the Marines and the Vietnam War, Barnhardt grew up idolizing the unhinged antiheros in the action movies and TV shows that followed, a profile in not-so quiet desperation better suited to the 21st century. Nobody’s going to shoot the president over Observe and Report, but that’s nothing to criticize.