When Observe and Report was released on April 10, 2009, most film watchers probably didn’t expect much of significance.
Its star, Seth Rogen, had mostly starred in goofy comedies up to that point, most of them involving Judd Apatow. Its writer and director, Jody Hill, was a co-creator of Eastbound and Down, which had debuted just two months earlier and hadn’t quiet caught on in any major way. And another film in which the hero was a mall security guard, the Kevin James comedy Paul Blart: Mall Cop, had come out earlier that year and become a surprise hit.
Observe and Report grossed much less than Paul Blart, and didn’t make a huge cultural impact at the time, but I always considered it highly underrated…
Observe and Report grossed much less than Paul Blart, and didn’t make a huge cultural impact at the time, but I always considered it highly underrated – and with a decade of hindsight, it may have been the most prescient film of its era.
Let’s Go to the Mall
In Observe and Report – which is streaming on Netflix – Seth Rogen plays Ronnie Barnhardt, a troubled mall security guard who dreams of becoming a cop in an unnamed city, but lacks what it takes in more than one way. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder that’s mostly untreated, Ronnie also has a mostly unrequited crush on makeup counter girl Brandi (Anna Faris.)
Ronnie dreams of becoming a cop, even trying to muscle out the actual cops (led by Ray Liotta) out of the investigation into a flasher who’s been accosting people at the mall.
But his conception of what being a policeman means seems mostly based on things he’s seen on television, as well as the notion that being a cop mostly entails invoking wanton violence. When he gives a monologue about his notions of justice, he sounds way more like Batman than any police officer I’ve ever heard of.
He’s a man whose combination of mental illness, resentment of women, and status as a social misfit has manifested itself in rage, and eventual violence.
The Ronnie character is what’s now a very familiar type: He’s an incel. He’s a man whose combination of mental illness, resentment of women, and status as a social misfit has manifested itself in rage, and eventual violence. If the phrase “toxic masculinity” had been in general usage in 2009, it would have applied neatly to Ronnie.
There’s a lot of that guy out there today, the young men radicalized by YouTube conspiracy videos and/or Donald Trump. Ronnie is also obsessed with guns, is casually racist, and regularly bullies a Middle Eastern mall vendor (played by a pre-fame Aziz Ansari). It’s not hard to imagine the character donning a MAGA hat a few years later.
“It’s late, but not too late”
Furthermore, just as Pizzagate and QAnon types are obsessed with exaggerated and fabricated conspiracy theories about perverts and pedophiles, Ronnie not only devotes his primary energies to stopping the flasher (eventually shooting him), but even upgrades himself into a potential murderer.
And it’s not only about Ronnie wanting to be a cop when he isn’t one. He’s like a forerunner of those folks who, at the time of the Ferguson and Baltimore protests, rooted from the sidelines for the police to hurt people.
If the film drew any controversy at the time of its release, it was for a brief moment in which Rogen appeared to be having sex with Faris’ character while she was passed out.
And Observe and Report predicted the ensuing decade in another way: It ends with a Queen song (“It’s Late”), like seemingly half of the movies released between 2017 and 2019.
If the film drew any controversy at the time of its release, it was for a brief moment in which Rogen appeared to be having sex with Faris’ character while she was passed out. There would be many instances in the ensuing years, including on Game of Thrones, in which the producers of a movie or TV show included a rape scene seemingly without knowing it was a rape scene.
The Foot Fist Way
Hill, the writer/director, was associated (as a co-creator and episode director) with Eastbound and Down and Vice Principals. Those two shows were, at their heart, about impotent male rage, and the ways it manifested itself – and what was so skilled about those shows was that they made this point while making the characters sympathetic, and even funny.
Observe and Report was similar. It treated the character with some sympathy, mostly because he was played by a likable actor in Rogen, but it was certainly darker and slimier than anything Rogen had made up to that point.
A decade on, it’s clear that beyond its dark comedy, Observe and Report gave us a terrifying glimpse of the future.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.