Apr 17, 2015

Alternative to What: "Observe and Report" (2009)

Welcome to Alternative to What: a weekly column that tries to find a great alternative to driving to the multiplexes. Based on releases of that week, the selections will either be thematically related or feature recurring cast and crew. The goal is to help you better understand the diversity of cinema and hopefully find you some favorites while saving a few bucks. At worse, this column will save you money. Expect each installment to come out on Fridays, unless specified. 

Observe and Report (2009)
- Alternative To -
Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 (2015)

It may be tough to remember back in 2009 that there were two films about mall cops that were coming out. Bother were also polar opposites tonally of each other. The more successful of the two, Paul Blart Mall Cop, went on to gross a lot of money and even spawned a sequel that is out this weekend. Meanwhile, Observe and Report was on the heels of Seth Rogen's rise to fame on he backs of his previous few films starting in 2007 with Knocked Up. Of course, Kevin James already had more of a household name with his King of Queens success. However, Rogen has the last laugh with a bigger current career and what many would consider the better mall cop movie.
There's very little about Observe and Report that is family friendly. In fact, the general plot revolves around catching a streaker. The protagonist is also not very bright or well respected and includes a racist beef with a kiosk worker (Aziz Ansari) and a flirty make-up girl (Anna Faris). Everything from there gets into unsettling spoilers and makes for one of the oddest and darkest comedies of recent years. There's a reason that audiences weren't as immediately drawn to it. It was definitely unsettling and had more unpleasant male nudity than one would expect in cinema, even after the infamous Forgetting Sarah Marshall moments. 
It could largely be because this is in most respects a subliminal parody of Taxi Driver. It may seem hard to immediately pin, but both cases involve unstable men who have been disrespected by their peers turning to violent means to solve their problems. The only difference is that Observe and Report's Ronnie works with a series of coworkers who get him into all sorts of trouble and causes his tough guy status to be just as professional as it is threatening. Basically, a lot of kids get their heads smacked with skateboards in this movie.

It is a strange note in Rogen's career largely because it is about as edgy as he got until last year's The Interview. While he has been consistent with his crass humor, he has been mostly sticking to premises that don't call for any big shocking moment. Sure, there's absurdity, but the darkness of Observe and Report is a far cry from most of what he was doing at the time. He was a stoner starting to make it as a leading man and creating one of the strangest rises to power that one can remember. The fact that he hasn't made a film as proverbially dark as Observe and Report since is a fascinating note. Was it because the film failed to capture an audience at the box office?
There's a lot that can be said about the film. For the most notable, it is striking in ways that director Jodie Hill would do successfully in his HBO series Eastbound & Down, which immediately came out on the heels of this film. It was unapologetic, vulgar, racist, and somehow made him all the more humane. It was a perverse hero that worked in his own twisted logic. Thankfully, it had a stellar cast that knew how to play to the tone and made a film that is almost too touchy to really have stood a chance anyways.
Which made its competition against Paul Blart: Mall Cop particularly bizarre. One could easily mistake based on the advertisements that Observe and Report was an inferior and lighthearted comedy. Those who saw it risked being proven wrong. However, it remains an odd note in the mall cop genre that is also a very bizarre footnote in Rogen's career. Nobody really talks about it as a highlight of his career, yet it is one of his earliest attempts at dramatic roles. It works for those looking for a challenge, or simply felt that Taxi Driver could use more kiosks. It may not make as much as even this weekend's sequel, but it still has more going on than you'd expect.

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