Seth Rogen is likely to get blamed for everything wrong with "Observe and Report," because he's overexposed at the moment and the film doesn't really work, even with its flashes of rude invention. But the fault lies with writer-director Jody Hill, whose microbudget comedy "The Foot Fist Way" got a strange amount of attention from the sleep-deprived regulars at the Sundance Film Festival, and whose new outing is a puny black-comic riff on "Taxi Driver," casting Rogen as Ronnie Barnhardt, delusional sociopathic mall cop.
Paul Blart would be dead in a week with this man on the job. A flasher is terrorizing the mall, and someone's robbing the stores at night, taunting security chief Ronnie into increasingly risky and violent action. Ray Liotta plays the barely characterized policeman whose authority is challenged by Ronnie. The movies' age-old clash between state and federal law enforcement is here downgraded to local law enforcement versus private security, the latter personified by a man whose social skills are no better or worse than Travis Bickle's.
There's about 10 good minutes out of 85. I liked the verbal duel between Rogen's Ronnie and one of his retail nemeses (Aziz Ansari). I liked Anna Faris as the cosmetics slinger with the weakness for alcohol and the willingness to try any prescription drug within 50 yards. The best, riskiest bit in "Observe and Report" involves Faris, with wee vomitous spillage drying on the pillow by her slack jaw, underneath Rogen, who cannot believe the dolt of his fondest desires is trashed enough to give him a toss.
Hill can create only one sort of protagonist, and half the time he's stuck in a gray area between satirizing the firearms-obsessed, multidirectionally offensive Ronnie and embracing him. Hill spends half this picture condescending to Ronnie before turning him into an object of working-class pity, and then working-class triumph. The hypocrisy smells, the comedy curdles and the violence in "Observe and Report" is stupidly misjudged to boot. Only Faris and Celia Weston, as Ronnie's alcoholic mother, lighten the load. Rogen has his moments; the script has far fewer, and when Hill manages to frame and pace a sight gag in a way that maximizes the laugh -- as in the first full-frontal close-up of the flasher, undone by all the slow-mo nudity that follows -- it's purely by accident.