Anna Faris and Seth Rogen in Observe & Report


It's been a couple of days, and I'm still not sure what to make of writer/director Jody Hill's unexpectedly disturbing broad comedy Observe & Report, in which bipolar security guard Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) attempts to apprehend a shopping-mall flasher and win over the skank of his dreams (Anna Faris).

It's not that I didn't laugh. I laughed, and laughed hard, a bunch of times, and when I wasn't laughing I was always caught up in the propulsive narrative and the unusual, erratic editing rhythms; I don't think there's one boring minute in the entire movie. Plus, for someone who is becoming close to exhausted by Rogen's schlubby charms, I thought the decision to cast him as a decidedly off-kilter, dangerously antagonistic anti-hero was an inspired one. Frighteningly single-minded in his pursuits of professional and romantic fulfillment, the half-buried hostility that's evident even in Rogen's more sympathetic roles is fully unleashed here, giving his portrayal an added blast of comic ferocity. There's more than surprise in this performance; there's legitimate menace.

Yet for all of its (occasionally literal) ballsiness, there's something a little timid and unfinished about Observe & Report, as if Hill - or more likely, the distributors at Warner Bros. - felt uncomfortable about taking the material to the emotional and psychological depths that it seems to demand. (The movie's most unnerving moment comes when Ronnie decides to quit taking his meds, yet bizarrely, this pivotal decision is treated as a smart move.) Hill has publicly cited Taxi Driver as one of his film's chief inspirations, and there's no mistaking their similarities, but the problem with this slapstick Scorsese is that it isn't quite Taxi Driver enough. Building to a crescendo of nightmare hilarity, the movie wimps out in its final reels, assuring the audience that no matter how F-ed up Ronnie appears, he's really just a lovable loser fully deserving of acceptance and promotions and the adoration of a saucer-eyed food-court sweetie (Collette Wolfe); the initial thrill of Observe & Report is that, its trailers notwithstanding, the film is absolutely nothing like Paul Blart: Mall Cop, and it ends up exactly like Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

Still, it's hard not to feel grateful for a movie that offers so many fearlessly mean-spirited highs. There are exceptional turns by Faris (an absolutely unapologetic shrew) and Celia Weston (disarmingly poignant as Ronnie's drunken wreck of a mother), and Rogen shares a priceless sequence with Aziz Ansari, playing a fellow mall employee with an understandable restraining order against Ronnie. (Ansari's Chick-fil-A line is practically worth the admission price.) A few comic gambits are more puzzling than satisfying - particularly Michael Peña's role as a fey, lisping (though apparently hetero) security guard and the intrusive cameo by Danny McBride, star of co-creator Hill's HBO series Eastbound & Down - but there's invention and true filmmaking savvy on display; I especially appreciated Hill's willingness to let scenes end on notes of ambivalence and discord. It's just too bad that ambivalence and discord don't sell movie tickets, or Observe & Report could've been the black-comedy classic it seemingly wanted to be instead of the one it merely threatens to be.


Miley Cyrus (center) in Hannah Montana: The MovieHANNAH MONTANA: THE MOVIE

Arriving without a pre-teen chaperone, I was somewhat embarrassed to be seeing Hannah Montana: The Movie, as no one wants to be the creepy middle-aged man sitting through a Miley Cyrus flick. But I actually caught a bit of a break: The (Good) Friday matinée I attended was so jam-packed that I couldn't find even one available seat, and wound up watching the whole thing from a standing position in the auditorium's entranceway. (Which, in truth, might've made me seem even creepier.) It turned out to be an incredibly interesting way to watch this big-screen expansion of the Disney Channel series, because the (unseen) giggling and cackling and applause sounded just like the responses you hear on a TV show "filmed in front of a live studio audience," and made me better appreciate the appeal of this family musical: It's likely as safe and comforting for its target demographic as 100 minutes spent in their own living rooms.

This isn't, it should go without saying, necessarily my idea of fun. But it's impossible to snipe at director Peter Chelsom's movie in any way that could possibly matter, and there are ingratiating pleasures to be found in the friendly, playful performances of Cyrus, series regulars Emily Osment and Jason Earles, and grown-up guests Margo Martindale, Melora Hardin, and Vanessa Williams. Beyond its questionable physical shtick - is it really that funny when an alligator bites a character in the butt and drags him underwater? - my only true beef with the film came during its climax, when Miley threatened to dispense with her wig-wearing alter-ego once and for all, and a heartbroken fan screamed to the teen star, "Don't do it! It's your only chance at a normal life!" In Hollywood, it appears, "normal" truly is in the eye of the beholder. Said the guy who stood his way through Hannah Montana: The Movie.

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