Observe and Report

In another one of those weird coincidences that occur in Hollywood now and then, January’s surprise hit “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” is being followed three months later by “Observe and Report,” which is also about a mall security guard with delusions of grandeur. The similarities end there, however. “Observe and Report” is to “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” what “Taxi Driver” is to the sitcom “Taxi.”

It was written and directed by Jody Hill, whose underground hit “The Foot Fist Way” employed many similar tactics, including the exploration of a main character who is reprehensible, delusional, and foolish. What makes Hill’s work unusual (in addition to being funny) is that these protagonists actually have their shortcomings pointed out. If you think about it, many films center around someone whose behavior would be considered awful if he or she were not the film’s hero. Viewed objectively, a lot of “heroes” are sociopaths and narcissists. “Observe and Report” establishes such a character but takes the less-traveled path of not letting him get away with it. At least, not entirely.

Seth Rogen stars as Ronnie Barnhardt, a schlubby, Seth Rogen-y fellow who’s intensely devoted to his job as head of security at a suburban mall. With smooth-talking Latino Dennis (Michael Peña) as his lieutenant and a portly set of Asian twins (John Yuan and Matt Yuan) as devoted followers, Ronnie runs a tight ship, exercising far more authority over the mall’s denizens than he actually has any right to. He lives at home with his mother (Celia Watson), who’s a fall-down drunk, and I am not using that term metaphorically.

Ronnie gets a chance at some real excitement when a flasher — yes, the good old-fashioned trenchcoat-wearing kind — starts exposing himself to women in the mall’s parking lot. Even better? One of the victims is Brandi (Anna Faris), the beautiful blond makeup-counter girl whom Ronnie has a crush on. She’s a stuck-up b-word who considers Ronnie a loser (and not without reason), but Ronnie’s obliviousness enables him to be thrilled at the prospect of defending her honor and protecting her from harm.

Ronnie is thwarted, however, by an actual law-enforcement officer, hard-nosed Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta), who arrives one day to investigate the pervert situation and again the next day after one of the mall’s stores is burglarized. Harrison is quickly annoyed by Ronnie’s interference with his legitimate criminal investigations, particularly when Ronnie fingers his nemesis, a Middle Eastern kiosk employee (Aziz Ansari), as both the flasher AND the burglar. (The guy’s ironclad proof that he’s not the flasher: “My d*** is brown!”)

Usually in a situation like this, the cop gets exasperated by the meddling civilian, and we laugh at the comical shenanigans and tomfoolery. Not here: We laugh, yes — the film explodes with raucous, twisted humor — but Harrison also shouts angrily and seriously at Ronnie, berating him for getting in the way. And Harrison is absolutely right. The movie doesn’t even try to claim otherwise.

Ronnie responds by trying to join the police force legitimately, and here’s where Hill pulls another switcheroo. It turns out that while Ronnie is dangerously bipolar and under-medicated, he’s not completely incompetent when it comes to police work. We’re used to seeing these clowns prove buffoonish in every regard, yet here’s one who succeeds where we expect him to fail and fails where we expect him to succeed.

And there is more to Ronnie than that. His overzealous pursuit of wrongdoers stems from his strong sense of justice and fairness. He knows what is right, and his voice-over narration about wanting to clean up the streets (“The world needs a f****** hero”) is a combination of Travis Bickle, Batman, and “Watchmen‘s” Rorschach. When Nell (Collette Wolfe), the sweet counter-girl at the cinnamon bun stand, is harassed by her insensitive boss (Patton Oswalt), Ronnie’s fury is noble. Granted, his immaturity and chemical imbalance cause him to act selfishly sometimes, but that spark of good intentions is always there.

Hill shot “The Foot Fist Way” like a documentary, so it’s a nice surprise to see how smooth and confident the direction is in the more polished “Observe and Report.” The soundtrack makes excellent use of relevant pop songs, like The Band singing “everything’s gonna be different when I paint my masterpiece” over the opening credits. A couple of characters are too broad to fit with the rest of the film, though: Ronnie’s soused mother, played by the terrific character actress Celia Weston, and Dennis, who’s given a high-pitched Mike Tyson voice by Michael Peña. Nonetheless, they’re funny, even if it’s a less-disciplined form of funny, and the central performances — Rogen, Faris, and Liotta — are beyond reproach.

This is a fascinatingly bizarre dark comedy, an abrasive and occasionally mean-spirited tale that succeeds by being completely committed to its ideas. Things happen that simply aren’t supposed to happen in movies; as in “Foot Fist Way,” Hill takes perverse pleasure in getting laughs from taboo situations like recreational use of hard drugs and adults beating up teenagers. Sometimes the laughter comes purely from shock — and Hill seems OK with that. Even if you’re laughing at how wrong it is, at least you’re laughing. One character, after witnessing Ronnie’s humiliation at the hands of Det. Harrison, says, “I thought this would be kind of funny, but it’s actually kind of sad.” And that’s the movie to a T: either funny or sad, depending on your point of view. Either way, you won’t soon forget it.

B+ (1 hr., 26 min.; R, pervasive harsh profanity, abundant nonsexual nudity, some rather strong violence, a lot of vulgar dialogue.)