The mall is by design a source of many things, but in Jody Hill's Observe and Report, it's mostly a place to find misery. Through the double doors is a flasher, unrequited love that's more embarrassing than classically tragic (thus all the more tragic), a guy shooting up, a police beating and a pervasive sense of status anxiety. The shopping center as suffering center metaphor works perfectly in a film as deceptively noncommercial as this. It casts Seth Rogen, beloved Hollywood go-to schlub for middle-of-the-road yuks, as a rage-filled, racist failure in a film that's the fucked-up, reckless and cum-reeking brother of the decidedly frothier, much more popular Paul Blart: Mall Cop (that movie grossed over six times the amount of money Observe did in the U.S.). The people who did see Observe, who has no reason not to expect just another lighthearted stumble down the escalator, must have felt like this:
It's a film so slyly subversive, it's as though the point is to be unpopular. For the first half or so, we view Rogen's Ronnie, the head of security at Forest Ridge Mall who wears his personal insecurities like a badge (he berates a news reporter that dares to refer to him without his official title), as we would any other manchild-just-'cause in typical contemporary Hollywood comedy. We watch him bumble through the mall as he attempts to solve the case of a serial flasher who's been exposing himself to women ("I'm gonna fuck you!" "Touch it, slut!" "See my dick!" growls the flasher early on, setting up the film's ha...ha? tone). At the same time, we watch him fumble to win the heart of make-up-counter worker Brandi (Anna Faris), who's skeezy and kind of gross, but still way out of Ronnie's league. He doesn't do very well in any of his endeavors, of course. He's immediately upstaged by Detective Harrison, who's played by Ray Liotta (who I suspect has teamed up with Faye Dunaway to get matching plastic surgery so that they can become each other, a la Genesis P-Orridge and his departed soul mate Lady Jaye).
Little by little, the cracks start to show. Ronnie says inexcusable things ("Fuck you, Sadam Hussein of Iraq!") to an East Indian guy (played by Aziz Ansari), who works at a mall cart. He finds himself in the middle of a gang fight that he wins, tearing someone's flesh and exposing bone in the process (the film's flashes of brutal violence may distract some, but they feel really fucking honest to me). He admits to Brandi that he takes Clonazepam (you may know it as Klonopin), and she gladly helps herself to his stash (who's sadder?). Then, during an interview for his dream job (that of a real cop), he reveals that he has bipolar disorder. Here, Observe and Report ceases being the average dumb-guy-does-dumb-shit-because-dumb-is-funny comedy because it gives a reason for its anti-hero's behavior. In your average Will Ferrell farce, you're supposed to accept the idiocy and arrested development of the protagonist: why would you want to question anything that serves the comedy? And look, I get how absurdity works, but I can barely express how refreshing Observe's bit of levity is.
This explanation makes all the difference, and I'd argue that once Ronnie's condition is revealed, the film not only ceases being a dumb comedy, it ceases being a comedy all together. Sure, funny lines abound in either half of the film ("I have mace and Tasers. Fuck you."; "Part of me thinks this disgusting pervert is the best thing that ever happened to me."; "Everyone thinks they’re fine until someone puts something in them they don’t want in them."; "I’m switching to beer. I can pound those all day and still keep my shit together. And I’m doing it for you!" [The last one, by the way, belongs to Ronnie's mother, whose coddling, verbal abuse and overall inappropriateness also help explain why Ronnie is the way he is.]). Sure, the scene in which Ronnie and his security partner Dennis (Michael Peña) beat the shit out of rule-violating skateboarders is outrageous enough to elicit at least nervous laughter. But after Ronnie's reveal, it's unclear whether we're laughing at circumstance or his condition. Admirably, there are no easy answers, not even when Ronnie has sex with an inebriated Brandi after their date.
The controversial scene opens with him on top of her, and she appears to be passed out with vomit next to her. He stops mid-thrust and asks if she's OK. She comes to and slurs, "Why'd you stop motherfucker?" The scene sparked outrage in people who saw it as rape played for laughs. Antonia Zerbisias wrote, "...Retroactive consent is not consent," but the thing is that we have no idea whether the expressed consent is retroactive -- the scene jumps from outside of Brandi's house, so that we are unsure how aware she was moments before we cut in (if having sex with an obliterated girl constitutes rape, virtually every straight guy in America is a rapist). Regardless, this is a bold edit that shrouds the possible violation in the kind of ambiguity Observe is wrapped in. We could be watching rape, we could be watching two fucked-up people fucking. (It seems consensual to me -- they're both fucked up in their own ways and neither want to stop having sex.) Hill leaves the conclusion up to the viewer. There's barely an implied laugh track to be found in Observe and Report, and that might be the most disturbing thing about it.