Naturally the critics at large are split down the middle (RT gives it a 51%) but for my money, OBSERVE AND REPORT should be praised as a black comic masterpiece, a satire of masculine character studies, the DR. STRANGELOVE to THE WRESTLER's FAIL-SAFE. The reason it wont be compared that way is because most critics let marketing, set and setting, sway them: THE WRESTLER came out with big Oscar buzz, the Micky Rourke comeback story, OBSERVE AND REPORT comes out with PAUL BLART: MALL COP still in theaters, and all the baggage of the Rogen-Apatow hit machine, so people expect a grungy gross-out comedy with a heart of gold. What they get is a heart of darkness. That it's also brilliant, touching and hilarious doesn't seem much to these critics, who would probably be writing a totally different take were the film, say, British (ala HOT FUZZ) and screened at the art house rather than the multiplex. As the always fearlessly trenchant Kim Morgan puts it on Sunset Gun:
"Which makes this movie all the more shocking than, say, (and I admire the following examples) that junkie epic Trainspotting, and a lot more subversive than anything Michael Haneke hatches up. Because Observe and Report isn't playing at your local art house. No, it's playing right in the belly of the beast: at the mall."The mall is the emotional and spiritual center of America's bloated middle, and the one Ronnie works in is rather unreal, almost empty; a ghost town of middle-America's unconscious, a near-Brechtian fantasia for the artistically maladjusted loners who wish they could just push the slow fat moms with strollers out of their way when trying to rush to the Game Stop; saying what they really think right out in public; punching whom they want to punch; having confidence even beyond incompetence. OBSERVE AND REPORT is the film that Terry Zwigoff is too inherently decent to make; the highlighted tantrums of his BAD SANTA--a similarly mall-bound film--errs on the side of decency and thus undoes any attempt at genuine subversion. It's one thing to threaten children and then "come around," it's another to bash them into pulp with their own skateboards and then go even deeper into darkness from there. In BAD SANTA, we watch a man behave badly, but OBSERVE AND REPORT itself behaves badly.
One must look farther back than SANTA to find an apt comparison to OBSERVE, I would cast my vote on W.C. Fields' THE BANK DICK. We're not talking a real reality in either: OBSERVE AND REPORT exists in the same fantasia of id wish fulfillment that the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields used to inhabit, the zone where we go to push and shove the people who've been oppressing us, where we can sock seemingly innocent bystanders on the puss, drink, snort, smoke and flirt with complete obliviousness to how we're perceived, and in the end manage to win all the marbles.
The BANK DICK finds Fields--ala Rogen's Ronnie--in a security guard uniform, the guise of authority (they have no real legal power), just waiting to be abused. Billy Bob Thornton's Santa costume, by contrast, is a joke from the get-go: the clothes of a saint in name only. There's no legit authority to Santa. But in the twilight realm between a real cop uniform and the illusion of one that is the security guard uniform it gets tricky; you can either navigate how far you can bend within the rules, or you can deliberately erase them, and that goes for the film as well as its narrative. If there's no hint of the Iraq war going on within OBSERVE, for example, it's because the mall could very well be Iraq in an Animal Farm metaphor sort of way. The mall Seth's portly cop monitors is a real mall only in the same sense Poe's House of Usher is a real house or Don Quixote's windmills are just windmills.
Even if he can't see past his own bullying ego and warped isolation, we can see Ronnie is a good soul. Like the martial arts instructor of director Jody Hill's previous film, THE FOOT FIST WAY, Ronnie's a delusional but forceful alpha male picking up strays from other packs, making his own army of America's runts. He's the kind of pal you make fast--when you're the new kid in town--and abandon even faster as you begin to climb the social ladder. You eventually leave your mall cop job, go to college, get married, divorced, promoted, and then years later you go to the mall and he's still there in the same uniform, having not aged a day, and you try to leave before he sees you. Still, he's a hero because no matter how pathetic you are, he'll always take you back into his fucked-up fold.
In truth, Ronnie represents the true American sociopath mentality that our country needs to win the war in Iraq. The whole place could be burning down around them and they'd still be fist-pumping to Metallica--oblivious--just happy to be there, happy to have at least some Iraqis who like them. You can't tell a guy like Ronnie he's a lost soul, or that his war can't be won, and that's perhaps the greatest victory America can have, the victory of embracing in full the Don Quixote madness that bravely and finally makes sense of our fucked-up planet. That's why we like George W., or Sarah Palin... in crazy times, we need a crazy leader. When reality sucks, vote for the space cadet. All America is a lost Sancho Panza, in search of just such a nutjob.
It's a hard character to capture, which is why the film deserves an elevated status it can't get thanks to its association as 'the other Paul Blart.' John Goodman in BIG LIEBOWSKI came close but tried too hard and became spittle-flecked and unpleasant by the end; Thornton in BAD SANTA similarly was too busy "trying" to be offensive to register fully; but Hill and Rogen get it juuuust right: Ronnie is every self-conscious young male whose had to repress the urge to punch out rude customers, bosses or co-workers, only unlike most of us, he's touched glorious bottom in the abyss where he's Dirty Harry times King Arthur, no matter what anyone says.
In order to appreciate such rampages, it helps to have lived some formative years under the weight deep-seated socially-inflicted repression, i.e. in the suburbs. Watching a superhero punch out a bad guy trying to blow up the world, that's just abstraction, but watching Ronnie run down a skate punk and crack him on the back of the head for no real reason? That's catharsis (presuming you've ever been annoyed by skate punks). In 1991, for example, I cheered for example, like my team won the world series, when Cyberdyne Systems HQ blew up in TERMINATOR 2, because my own place of employment at the time, Ortho Pharmaceuticals in Bridgewater, NJ, looked just like it. No offense to Ortho (I was a mail room temp) - I loved the people, and got a discount on Monotstat 7 at the company store, but you know how it is - everyone in the theater thought I was insane, but I was beyond caring. I'd been set free, for a hot second.
It's characters like Ronnie whom our big dumb war is meant for; their raging violent streak needs an outlet, and its better to just give them guns and send them far far away. War gets them out of their parent's house... war belongs to them, was made to serve that American muttonheaded will to kick ass and chew bubble gum, and common sense be damned.
The second closest auteur to reach Hill's level of subversive deadpan comic genius is actually horror icon John Carpenter, particularly in THEY LIVE (1988), with Rowdy Roddy Piper [pictured above] which brings us to THE WRESTLER. And of course, the promo for the National Guard with Kid Rock singing "American Warrior!" (Read my take on that here)