“Observe and Report,” filmmaker Jody Hill’s first feature since the cult hit “The First Foot Way,” continues his remarkable knack for making audiences sympathize with a psychopath. Unlike any Seth Rogen vehicle that has come before it, this one actually gives him a bona fide character to play, rather than letting him go on autopilot as a goofy manchild. The strange, dark story of a mall cop intent on capturing an anonymous flasher allows Rogen to put on a fascinating persona, the best he has ever played. As the self-absorbed Ronnie Barnhardt, he dares you to dislike him, and comes pretty close to pulling it off. But as the plot moves forward in fits of violence, obscene confrontations and offbeat twists, Hill makes viewers relate to Ronnie’s unwieldy world view.
In another filmmaker’s hands, “Observe and Report” could play as a completely unfunny thriller. Ronnie’s instability—he suffers from bipolar disease—makes him a legitimately troubled character, plagued with real problems that he can’t fully understand. After last night’s SXSW premiere, many viewers compared him to “Taxi Driver”‘s Travis Bickle, which makes sense considering how both movies end with extreme outbursts of their bizarre anti-heroes. Rogen’s not alone in playing against type: Anna Faris balances things out with her portrayal of a mean-spirit mall employee who breaks Ronnie’s heart. Hill’s script might seem disjointed at times, but the same could be said for Ronnie. As a studio movie, “Observe and Report” is boldly unconventional, believably vulgar, and willing to do things with the genre that few big budget comedies dare to explore. At the end of the day, however, it does figure out a happy ending, and the actual framework of the narrative seems retroactively familiar. But if Hill used a formula, he still managed to introduce a few new rules of his own.