Seth Rogen goes dark in "Observe and Report," a weirdo comedy that at times owes as much to "Taxi Driver" as "Superbad." The writer-director, Jody Hill, has cited Martin Scorsese's film as a primary influence, but one should not take this comparison too far. The movie, starring Rogen as a mall cop with anger management issues, is essentially a goony romp flecked with disturbing eruptions of violence.
Those eruptions, more often than not, don't enlarge the jokes or provide a scarier, more comprehensive take on the human comedy. ("Taxi Driver," by the way, with its cretinous, vengeful cabbie played by Robert De Niro, was a lot closer to black comedy than most people realize.) Hill is trying to capture the teen gross-out contingent while also playing to the adult crowd with flashes of "seriousness." It's an unstable mix, not because light and dark should not go together, but because their pairing here resembles a matter of convenience – a way of seeming risky while not risking very much.
Rogen's Ronnie Barnhardt is a rent-a-cop security chief who regards his turf – the enclosed Forest Ridge Mall in Albuquerque, N.M. – as his fiefdom. With only a taser, flashlight, modified golf cart, and a ragtag team of helpers, Ronnie is vastly ill-equipped to serve the outsize ambitions of his ego. Then a flasher begins terrorizing the mall and Ronnie sees his capture as the way to propel himself into big-time law enforcement. Unfortunately, the police investigator assigned to the case, Ray Liotta's Detective Harrison, regards Ronnie as nothing more than an annoying rent-a-cop.
The match-up between Rogen and Liotta isn't the wingding you might expect. These two actors might have struck sparks in a flat-out comedy – Liotta's psycho deadpan is a perfect foil for Rogen's slobbery cluelessness. But here both are damped down by the film's now-it's-goony-now-it's-not game plan. That leaves the comic field to a large extent open to the supporting players, such as Anna Faris, who plays Brandi, the tarty makeup-counter sales clerk Ronnie is desperately trying to impress, or Celia Weston as Ronnie's alcoholic mom. (She informs Ronnie sweetly that his birth drove his father away.) But even here, Hill does not allow his actors to pull out all the stops, as if any high emotion might be mistaken for burlesque.
I'm not asking for another "Paul Blart: Mall Cop." I'm not even, at least in theory, asking for a comedy. It's just that "Observe and Report" is a lot better when it's being funny than when it's rummaging in the shadows. Rogen is not skillful enough to make Ronnie's maniacal descent psychologically believable. He's good at portraying the guy's misplaced gallantry when it comes to helping out a beleaguered Toast-a-Bun salesgirl (Colette Wolfe), but too often he just seems zonked. Maybe he was afraid that if he actually utilized his facial muscles he might be mistaken for the Seth Rogen of old. Unless you really know what you're doing, inexpressivity is a bad way for an actor to express himself.
Almost every actor who has come out of comedy has felt the urge to enter the serioso sweepstakes. (Jim Carrey and Robin Williams are the most conspicuous cases.) But Rogen was more humanly believable – more "serious," if you will, in "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" and "Pineapple Express" than he is here. (Speaking of weirdo comedies, "Pineapple Express," which Rogen co-wrote, ended with a shoot'em-up massacre that, regardless of intentions, was anything but hilarious.) Rogen and Hill are buying into the dubious but all-too-common assumption that dark is serious and light is, well, light.
It's OK if you want to play Hamlet – even a mall cop Hamlet – but first you must earn your stripes. Grade: B- (Rated R for pervasive language, graphic nudity, drug use, sexual content, and violence.)