The Best Movie You Never Saw: Observe and Report

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before its time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be looking at OBSERVE AND REPORT!

THE STORY: Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) is the head of security at the Forest Ridge Mall. When a flasher exposes himself to Ronnie’s dream girl, he launches a full-scale investigation that puts him in the crosshairs of a local cop (Ray Liotta), while also reigniting his aspirations to one day become a full-fledged police officer.

THE PLAYERS: Starring: Seth Rogen, Michael Pena, Ray Liotta, Anna Faris & Collette Wolfe. Written and directed by Jody Hill.

THE HISTORY: Seth Rogen was in an enviable position back in 2009. Coming-off KNOCKED UP and SUPERBAD, he was, at the time, one of the hottest comedy stars in the world and seen as eminently bankable. This allowed him to get some rather unique passion projects made, some of which rank among the strangest would-be mainstream comedies ever made by a big studio. While the $120 million budgeted THE GREEN HORNET was the one that made the most noise, the more modestly budgeted OBSERVE AND REPORT is the one that’s better stood the test of time, being a cult classic just waiting to be discovered by the audiences who ignored it back in 2009.

""Observe and Report," directed by Jody Hill and starring Seth Rogen, was an unappreciated, brilliant movie.” – Lloyd Kauffman (THE TOXIC AVENGER) – L.A Times 

Well, maybe ignored is a bad word. OBSERVE AND REPORT did make some noise in the winter of ’09, but it wasn’t good, with think pieces slamming Rogen and writer-director Jody Hill (coming off THE FOOT FIST WAY) for the infamous date rape scene, and the fact that the movie was curiously short on goofiness. Some of the reviews were especially brutal, with Manohla Dargis of the New York Times memorably stating, “"if you thought Abu Ghraib was a laugh riot you might love Observe and Report." Even still, some critics liked it judging by the 50% RT rating, and Quentin Tarantino ranked it among his favorite films of the year.

Financially it was a bust, opening in fourth place (a weekend HANNAH MONTANA: THE MOVIE opened at number one), making $26 million worldwide – not a full-on disaster considering the $18 million budget, but still Rogen’s worst theatrical performer to date. Hill changed his focus away from film and struck up a lasting relationship with HBO, having made “Eastbound & Down” for them, along with the on-going “Vice Principals”, both of which have garnered considerable critical acclaim.

I loved Michael in End of Watch, but I wanted to work with him because of his now-legendary performance as Dennis, one of the security guards, in Jody Hill’s Observe and Report. “I’m not gonna lie to you, Ronnie, there’s nothing good about this at all!” That’s one of the best U.S. movies of the past 10 years.” – John Michael McDonagh (CALVARY, THE GUARD) – THR interview 

WHY IT'S GREAT: Audiences for sure expected an edgier, or rather, R-rated version of PAUL BLART: MALL COP when they walked into OBSERVE AND REPORT. What they got was a movie that had more in common with TAXI DRIVER or THE KING OF COMEDY than anything Rogen had ever done before, and a lot of his crowd hated him for it. Looking back at OBSERVE AND REPORT now, it ranks as an amazingly ballsy movie for Rogen to have tackled, and he doesn’t get enough credit for just how good he is in it, and how amazing (and f**ked up) it is.

“That’s one of those movies I think will get the Office Space, Zoolander cult treatment a few years down the road; it’s just going to take some time. It’s so fucking good, and it’s so weirdly realistic. What’s really kind of creepy is, this guy is a little bit unhinged, and takes it into his own hands. It’s not that the same level of horror, but, like, the Trayvon Martin case reminds me a of a guy that’s like, “I’ve gotta just step the fuck up here!” You know what I mean? How many more of these incidences are we going to have? You look at this admittedly goofy comedy, but there’s so much darkness in it. I think it’s based on the guys [writer-director] Jody Hill grew up with.” – Patton OswaltAV Club Interview 

While funny in a deeply uncomfortable way, I’ve always seen OBSERVE AND REPORT as a character study, and anyone expecting Rogen to be playing a lovable shlub was in for a rude awakening, with him full-on raping Anna Faris’s character (although they try to mitigate that by having her demand he continue when he stop – maybe the movie’s only real misstep), and brutalizing people regularly in the course of his work day.

Here’s the thing – I’ve known a few Ronnie Barnhardt’s. Years ago, I worked overnights and regularly interacted with a night watchman who could have been Barnhardt’s psychic twin, with him getting way too into the modest power trip that came from being a security guard, and idealizing the police, even though he’d never made it into their ranks. And you can find Ronnie’s in pretty much any job, from the over-zealous office manager, to your nightmare supervisor, etc. What’s especially brilliant is how the whole film unfolds as Ronnie’s psycho fantasy, with even Faris’s drunken, permissive rape line potentially being something he just imagined to give himself permission. There are hints at this, with his fights being shot heroically, and him usually coming out ahead despite how crazy he is. If they had ended this movie with a shot of Ronnie sitting in a straight-jacket having imagined the entire film, people would have loved it. Hill doesn’t make it that easy.

Rogen’s performance is exceptional, but he’s not the whole show. Anna Faris, who’s perennially underrated, is aces as the hateful object of his affections, while Michael Pena steals every scene as his underling/best pal, Dennis (“I’m an outlaw”), whose third act betrayal elevates the film even further. If you like his acting here, check out John Michael McDonagh’s recent WAR ON EVERYONE. The cast is peppered with familiar names too, with Jesse Plemons pre-‘Breaking Bad” and “Fargo”, Patton Oswalt, Danny McBride and more all showing up.

BEST SCENE: Well, this is kinda random as you could really call any scene with Pena’s Dennis the “best scene”, but I have particular affection for his efforts to “teach” Ronnie his way, which involves lots of drugs, pervy behavior and beating up skateboarding kids.

SEE IT: OBSERVE AND REPORT is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and many streaming platforms.

PARTING SHOT: I’m aware that OBSERVE AND REPORT is not for everyone, but I think that’s what makes it so great. Rogen really stuck his neck out and put himself in Hill’s hands when he signed on to do this and I wish he’d do it more often, as the guy’s got a whole lot of talent. This ranks as one of his best movies, and one that’s bound to increase in reputation as the years go by.


About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.