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MOVIE REVIEW

Observe and Report

Star is more Dirty Harry than teddy bear in 'Report'

Anna Faris and Seth Rogen in the comedy ''Observe and Report.'' Anna Faris and Seth Rogen in the comedy ''Observe and Report.'' (WARNER BROTHERS)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / April 10, 2009
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I know, I know. Another month, another doofus-mall-cop movie. How do these things happen? "Observe and Report," which opens today and stars Seth Rogen, has been pre-mocked as "Paul Blart 2." But this new movie is crazier, scarier, funnier, and more bewildering. It's the strangest movie I expect to see from a Hollywood studio for the rest of the year.

Any film that opens with a riotous sequence of a flabby flasher whipping open his trench coat and spewing obscene commands at women in a mall parking lot has done something right. It's not just that "Observe and Report" begins with this flasher, whom Randy Gambill plays with a necessary lack of inhibition. It's that the filmmaking balances the awfulness and comedy of the event. The urgency in the handheld camera's attempt to keep up with the flasher, the horror in the faces of the women, the general beauty of the day (the sun brings out the orange in the pervert's hair) - it's lewd and wonderful, a perfect John Waters afternoon.

That opening sequence also lays out the uneasy blend of harmlessness and real danger that writer-director Jody Hill tries to build into "Observe and Report," his second film after last year's "The Fist Foot Way." The flasher gives Ronnie Barnhardt (Rogen) something to obsess over. Ronnie works security at a fictitious everymall. He lives with his alcoholic mother (Celia Weston) and spends his downtime at a gun club, wishing, alongside his twin co-workers (John and Matt Yuan), for the right to bear arms on the job. He also may be bipolar.

From the early going, it seems that Rogen will be doing more of his abrasive teddy bear routine - unprintable commentary followed by a moment of sensitivity. Often with Rogen, his vulnerability makes his coarseness safe. He gets away with insulting Katherine Heigl or Elizabeth Banks because they will tame his heart. Ronnie is something altogether new for Rogen. Vulnerability never arrives. He's shameless.

Not far into the movie, Ronnie saunters over to his crush, Brandi (Anna Faris), the flamboyantly blond dipstick who works at a department store cosmetics counter, to warn her about the flasher. He winds up being insulting. Rogen's normal awkward self-awareness doesn't kick in. Ronnie doesn't realize his foot is in his mouth. His profanity extends to the sweet girl, Nell (Collette Wolfe), who makes his coffee and also endures the verbal abuse of her boss (Pat ton Oswalt). She appears to love Ronnie's casual putdowns all the same.

After that first encounter with Nell, I wondered where Hill was taking this - the gunplay, the indecent exposure, Ronnie's cruelties, the pitch-perfect calibration of Faris's obnoxiousness.

While it incorporates the shallow, gag-oriented style of "Napoleon Dynamite," "Observe and Report" becomes increasingly dark, and the movie struggles to balance the whimsical and the psychotic. The result is a tone-deaf black comedy that in the 1970s would have been a grisly thriller - "Dirty Harry" or "Taxi Driver" - and by the 1980s would have been "Rambo." Ronnie is as reactionary as Harry Callahan but as delusional as Travis Bickle. He has altercations with everyone from the American Arab kid (Aziz Ansari) who mans a massage cart to the aggravated detective (Ray Liotta, terrific) investigating a shoplifting case that Ronnie is determined to solve himself.

The character is a frustrating creation, partly because he's crazy, partly because Hill and Rogen seem unsure of just how crazy to make him. When Ronnie goes nuts on a drug gang, it's funny because the two sides of the law are clear. His verbal assaults on Nell are a different matter. They're personal. Say what you will about Travis Bickle, he knew how to treat a lady.

The line here between crusading man-child and menace to society is perilously thin. Yet as with "Taken" or, for that matter, any of the "Police Academy" movies, Ronnie's commitment to justice is crowd-pleasing, if certain to result in lawsuits. A braver, more outraged movie might have made this character a victim of the economy. But this frustrated cop (he fails a police psychological exam with flying colors) has no higher moral calling. He craves the thrill of war and the adoration of the public he claims to protect: Rambo with pre-traumatic stress disorder. If Ronnie ever makes it out of this fictional shopping center to a mall near you, laugh. Then run for your life.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

OBSERVE AND REPORT

Written and directed by: Jody Hill

Starring: Seth Rogen, Anna Faris, Celia Weston, Michael Peña, Collette Wolfe and Ray Liotta

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 85 minutes

Rated: R (pervasive language, graphic nudity, drug use, sexual content, and violence)