Live near Houston? Come out to the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema - LaCenterra this Saturday and watch Observe and Report on the big screen. Buy tickets here.
2019 marks the tenth anniversary of Observe and Report, Jody Hill’s pitch black comedy starring Seth Rogen as Ronnie Barnhardt, a mentally unstable mall cop whose obsession with catching a flasher and wooing a makeup counter worker played by Anna Faris sends him on a dark descent into vigilante justice. Released the same year as Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Observe and Report was met with significantly less box office success than Kevin James’ family comedy and reviews for Hill’s film were decidedly mixed.
Cheese, wine and movies - sometimes you just need to let things age. A decade later and Observe and Report has become simultaneously meaner and kinder; a weird and brilliantly nuanced antihero movie that treads the same ground explored earlier this year with Todd Phillips’ Joker. From amazing performances by its supporting cast - especially Michael Peña who seems to be channeling every character in the documentary American Pimp - to its needle-drop soundtrack to its shocking bursts of violence, Observe and Report has become a truly great - if still underappreciated - film. Who could have expected this from the film that lost the great Mall Cop War of 2019?
Spend any significant amount of time online in 2019 and you’ll encounter a Ronnie Barnhardt. They’re puffed up, overly self-confident Men with a capital M. Fueled by some ingrained if outdated idea of masculinity, these Ronnies prowl Twitter, Reddit and other online watering holes like Rogen’s character patrolled Forest Ridge Mall. They pick fights, pass judgment and sentencing and shower women with an uncomfortable and highly unasked for amount of attention. They are racist, sexist, mean and totally 100 percent un-self-aware.
Maybe you know a Ronnie in real life. If you can’t think of a Ronnie in your social sphere, I hate to break it to you but you may be a Ronnie yourself. I grew up best friends with a Ronnie. My Ronnie wore a bulletproof vest to school because he thought it made him look tough. He spent his afternoons sharpening knives, circling pictures in gun and ammo catalogs and harassing the girl who lived down his street, sending her unsolicited devotions of his affection as if he was an errant knight trying to win the heart of a damsel.
Why the heck would anybody want to watch a movie and spend 86 minutes with a cretin like Ronnie Barnhardt?
With Observe and Report, Jody Hill and Seth Rogen do something almost unheard of in today’s culture, they paint a sympathetic picture of a terrible person. It often feels like the world has lost its empathy. As political and social divides continue to drive a wedge between fractions of both the United States and the world at large, it has become dangerous to put yourself in the mindspace of the assholes of the world. But I’ve always been fascinated about why assholes are assholes. Few people set out to be terrible people. Most villains see themselves as the heroes of their stories. What makes terrible people tick? Observe and Report offers some clues.
Rogen’s Ronnie Barnhardt is not a good guy. He’s an obnoxious bully who wields his small amount of power like a food court tyrant. It’s easy to understand why the people who work alongside him at the mall hate Ronnie. But Ronnie is also loyal and passionate and holds himself and those around him to incredibly high standards. He’s sensitive to the needs of a young woman who works in the food court and offers her kindness, even if that kindness comes in a thick, crunchy shell of machismo. Ronnie has dreams but consistently fails to achieve those dreams. He loves Brandi, Farris’ makeup counter worker, but his attempts to be romantic towards her come off as creepy and overbearing. Ronnie lumbers through life, swinging at those around him with the limited amount of power he’s been given through his job, all the while not realizing that he’s the very epitome of powerlessness.
Rogen’s performance as Ronnie Barnhardt is broad and over-the-top and funny in all the ways we’ve come to expect from a Jody Hill character - but there’s a sadness that beats in the character’s veins. As audiences spend time with Ronnie, they are given hints at a terrible childhood with a doting if inappropriate mother, told of his medically diagnosed bipolar disorder and see the giant chip on his shoulder that causes him to constantly butt up against the police. Ronnie is a bad human being, but he’s a human being and is given the courtesy of a fleshed-out, sympathetic performance from Rogen, an actor who was just starting to transition into the dramatic roles that he would spend the next decade growing into.
Observe and Report is built from the same DNA as Joker, King of Comedy, The Cable Guy, Super and a dozen other fantastic films that seek to humanize the assholes of the world. There are people like Ronnie Barnhardt out there and we’re going to encounter them - whether online or in the real world. They’re loud, obnoxious and often unrepentant in their assholery. With Observe and Report, though, Hill and Rogen tried very damn hard to explain what makes a person like this tick. They dug into what could have been a one-dimensional dickhead and showed audiences the world through his eyes. We’re not going to get rid of the assholes of the world but maybe, like the experience of watching Observe and Report, we’ll have a little easier go at spending 86 minutes, or however long it may be, with an asshole if we try and understand them a bit more.