Observe and Report: Travis Bickle, Mall Cop

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Warner Brothers Pictures

Anna Faris as Brandi and Seth Rogen as Ronnie in Observe and Report

Here's a scene to frighten the horses. About an hour into Observe and Report, mall cop Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) has finally achieved his dream and taken the blonde, egotistical, doltish perfume saleslady Brandi (Anna Faris) to bed, basically by getting her drunk. Problem is, she's pretty much passed out, her puke staining the pillow, as Ronnie happily, obliviously churns away. He pauses for a moment to notice her comatose state, and without opening her eyes, Brandi mutters, "Why'd you stop, malefactor?" Or a 12-letter word to that effect.

Now that's character comedy, I mean tragedy, I mean tromedy, of the highest, I mean lowest, I mean high-lowest order. Beyond the weirdness, if you can get there, is a quick portrait of trailer-park America pursuing its urges by any means necessary. It's clear that Ronnie, no babe magnet, will take what he can get on this night of nights, even if it's not quite the exalted ecstasy he had hoped for; and that Brandi, who's been in this position once or twice before, wants the sexual exercise, even if she's not awake to take an active role in it — somewhere in her stupor, she's feeling a rote rumble of pleasure. The scene achieves what few American movies even attempt: to pinpoint the grim compromise, the desperation, that can attend the sex act. Don't call it love; don't call it grand; but whatever it is, don't stop. (See pictures of Seth Rogen.)

That minute or so is the finest thing in Observe and Report, and if it doesn't strike you as funny-peculiar, you may as well stop reading now. Most of the rest of the movie is standard-issue comedy rowdiness, with one twist: the hero is borderline bananas. Ronnie, chief security guard at the Forest Ridge Mall, takes his job waaay too seriously. He bullies his staff like the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket. He thinks his men should be armed with assault rifles, not just Mace and Tasers. He patrols the mall as if it's Baghdad and al-Qaeda is around the corner. He shrugs off robberies of the mall stores but thinks the escapades of a flasher (Randy Gambill) are the start of World War III. He hears voices in his head, and they're not happy. He's the polar — actually, bipolar — opposite of nice, nebbishy Paul Blart in this year's most popular comedy. Ronnie is Travis Bickle, Mall Cop. (See an interview with Seth Rogen.)

In most guy-oriented comedies, originality is the merest wrinkle. (What if this 40-year-old man were ... a virgin?) Give writer-director Jody Hill two cheers for asking: What if we did a workplace comedy, and the focus of our attention and sympathy were on a fellow — played by Rogen, everyone's favorite jovial slob — who is this close to the simmering psycho Robert De Niro played in Taxi Driver? The gun love, the quiet surliness, the loner status, the head whisperings, the mistaken fashioning of other people's motives into paranoid scenarios — all echo the violent cabbie in Martin Scorsese's movie, whose script was inspired by the diary of Arthur Bremer, the would-be assassin of Governor George Wallace.

Like Travis, Ronnie has two women in his life, though he is only peripherally in theirs. Travis had the blonde goddess he dreamed of (played by Cybill Shepherd) and the girl he wanted to protect (Jodie Foster). For Ronnie, Brandi is the woman he aspires to — he says, with feeling, "She's the prettiest girl in this entire mall, if not the world" — though in Faris' acute performance, her dull eyes and sour turn of mouth tell us she should be placed not on a pedestal but in the trash bin. And Nell (Colette Wolfe) is the nicest girl Ronnie doesn't quite notice: a smiling, saintly, abused cripple of near Dickensian poignancy.

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