If you are under the impression that Observe and Report is just Paul Blart: Redux, you are mistaken. After location and occupation, the similarities between the movies cease. In fact, mall security guard Ronnie (Seth Rogan) is more like Travis Bickle, powerless, mentally ill, and socially peripheral, finding his path to relevance in punishing scum. In Ronnie’s case that means apprehending a parking lot flasher, who has not coincidentally targeted the object of Ronnie’s own lust, Brandi (Anna Faris). But Ronnie is no working class hero or even a mildly sympathetic loser. He is only the latest and most irredeemable addition to a long line of crass, sexist, man-boys plaguing theaters near you.
Incredibly, this role is a something of a departure for Rogen, whose loser characters usually wind up inexplicably endearing. Any pity we might feel for Ronnie when he is berated by his boss (Dan Bakkedahl), rejected by Brandi or mocked by Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta), quickly dissipates when we see that he gives as good as he gets. Actually, most everyone here is wholly unlikeable. Ronnie is not just bitter and disappointed, he’s psychotic and vengeful; Brandi’s sluttiness knows no bounds; Harrison is a cruel bully. Each is so extreme, so deliberately offensive, that we’re left to stare in slack-jawed astonishment at the train wreck of their encounters.
That said, Observe and Report is completely pointless. It briefly considers Ronnie’s fearfulness, his dread of the obscurity and weakness he’s already living out, epitomized in the limits of his job, to observe and report, never to act. Despite his incessant posturing, Ronnie is only too aware of his situation, explaining to fellow guard Dennis (Michael Peña in a gross, stereotyped role) their “meaningless existence.” Indeed, he recalls, the “disgusting pervert” as the best thing that ever happened to him. Unconcerned with the female victims, Ronnie is grateful for Brandi’s upset, as it gives him cause to interact with her. He can only understand the flasher as a starting point down a path that leads to his imagined reward, the world’s respect and thanks that he is “a great man.”
What exactly makes a man “great” is not so clear, though. Ronnie sees himself as a protector, especially of Brandi. In reality, he only victimizes her further, capitalizing first on her fear to get closer to her and later taking advantage of her drunkenness in a disturbing scene that can only be described as date rape. Worse, the film suggests that Brandi’s vulgarity makes her deserving of such treatment, and further that we should feel sorry for Ronnie for being delusional enough to find such a woman deserving of him. Brandi and the other women in the film, including Ronnie’s mother (Celia Weston) and even squeaky-clean Nell (Collette Wolfe), are pathetic caricatures (floozy, alcoholic, born-again virgin). They exist only to be acted upon, to be rescued, used or abused by Ronnie.
Though the connection is lost on him, it’s fitting that he obsesses over catching the flasher since he’s not only a reflection of Ronnie’s own drive to subject the mall-goers to his misperceived power, but also a glaring reminder of his ineffectuality. Because Ronnie has no legitimate authority, he is relegated to “observing” the flasher too, just like the victimized women.
Ronnie’s eventual realization that he doesn’t need his job to know who he is might be seen as progress, but it’s hardly greatness. Observe and Report proposes that a man who feels worthless is capable of a violent rage. If this sounds edgy, it’s not. The film reduces this scary possibility to an unpleasant, bipolar vigilante who has stopped taking his Clozapine.