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Wednesday, April 15, 2009 07:05 am

A mall cop worth seeing

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In Jay Hill’s Observe and Report, Seth Rogan plays Ronnie Barnhardt, a bipolar man-child who has raised himself to tragic results. A legend in his own mind, he approaches his job as head mall cop with a degree of tenacity that’s frightening. Used to macing shoplifters and beating skateboarders, he’s a guy you don’t want to cross, especially when he’s off his medication. A flasher has been terrorizing the mall he patrols and Ronnie’s need to catch him rises to a fever pitch when Brandi (Anna Faris), the slutty object of his desire, is attacked. Intent on capturing the assailant, Ronnie feels threatened when Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta) trespasses on his territory, setting off a rivalry that nearly comes to a tragic end.

The plot is strikingly similar to Paul Blart: Mall Cop but the tone couldn’t be more different. Hill sets out to destroy the conventions and rhythms of the standard comedy and he does so with a sense of mischievous glee. With Ronnie’s creepy, earnest voice-over narration and barely contained psychotic behavior, it’s obvious that Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is the film’s inspiration. Like Travis Bickle, Ronnie’s a ticking time bomb whose emotional and physical outbursts are initially played for comedic effect. However, midway through, when our “hero” turns the tables on a group of drug dealers with a shocking display of violence, we realize that there’s nothing funny about Ronnie’s behavior and that Hill has made us empathize with a seriously troubled individual.

Hill’s intention is to play not just against the aesthetic of film comedies but American multiplex fodder in general. So much of the movie product Hollywood throws our way is of the cookie-cutter variety. The director is intent on shaking up that formula, going out of his way to shock and offend us, but also to rethink the way film narratives are constructed. With its whiplash changes in tone and structure, Observe and Report is a daring piece of cinema that succeeds more than it fails. Keep in mind, this is not a film for all tastes and those who are easily offended are warned to keep their distance. However, for the adventurous, this is a movie not to be missed. It takes risks tamer directors would shy away from.

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