.Priced to Move: Observe and Report and Goodbye Solo

Take the taxi to the mall.

In case you haven’t been keeping up with such things, Observe and Report is actually the second mall-cop movie of 2009. You can now safely forget Paul Blart. Ronnie Barnhardt is the guy you want, warts and all.

Ronnie (Seth Rogen), protagonist of this pointedly hilarious wallow in stupidity by writer-director Jody Hill, is the head security guard at Forest Ridge Mall, a typical suburban shopping center. He stands out among his fellow doughnut-guts and pillow-butts in the security detail not only physically — he’s slightly less pudgy — but also mentally. Ronnie is bipolar and often forgets to take his pills, leading to mood swings that further complicate his Travis Bickle-style compulsion to clean up the world by kicking some ass.

In another, cornier movie, Ronnie might have been a sympathetic figure, a misunderstood nice guy courageously battling a few personal problems and getting into harmless scrapes on his way to redeeming himself. Not here. Ronnie is a dull-witted bully whose fondest hope is to join the local police force, carry the latest handguns and assault rifles, and stay “up all night fightin’ demons.” He disparages immigrants and skateboarders, and patronizingly stops by the mall’s bake shop to get free coffee from Nell (Collette Wolf), a disabled woman who obviously likes him. Nell’s boss and co-workers pick on her because of her injured leg, but Ronnie doesn’t notice. He’s too busy summoning up the courage to hit on Brandi (Anna Faris), a slutty, ultrashallow, blond department-store cosmetics salesclerk who otherwise ignores him.

Ronnie’s main obstacle at the mall, aside from directing his deputies — a lisping lackey named Dennis (Michael Peña from The Lucky Ones and Million Dollar Baby) and a pair of grinning morons played by John and Matt Yuan — is a persistent flasher exposing himself to women, including ditzy Brandi, in the parking lot. If only Ronnie could capture the flasher, he’d be able to join the police department. Too bad Detective Harrison (a bored-looking Ray Liotta), the local cop assigned to the flasher case, brushes aside Ronnie as a nuisance.

One of the things that makes Observe and Report so funny is the unexpected savagery with which the filmmakers make fun of Ronnie’s world and everyone in it. Next to this, Judd Apatow’s sex-and-drug farces seem sweet and jelly-filled. From the opening credits, with its curious but effective choice of the Band’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece” on the soundtrack as shoppers wander the aisles, Hill and company (he did the martial arts comedy The Foot Fist Way) heap abuse on seemingly every single foolish detail of mercantile America, from medical response teams (“Perimeter!”) and prepackaged identity (“I’m a born-again virgin,” claims Nell) to Ronnie and Brandi’s endless pill-popping and Ronnie’s running hate-speech feud with “Saddamn” (Aziz Ansari), a jewelry kiosk owner in the mall. It’s not a loving look at commercial life à la Adventureland — it’s a full-scale, contemptuous attack on the mall mentality. Even the sex scenes are commodified, much like in real life.

Rogen’s Ronnie takes the inner hostility of his characters in Pineapple Express or Knocked Up to a slightly more sinister pitch. He sees society as a playground full of naughty kids and himself as the avenging monitor. Of course, macho Ronnie is helpless when it comes to Brandi, the latest in a long line of inspired airhead impersonations by actor Anna Faris (The House Bunny, Smiley Face). Faris goes through a remarkable array of facial expressions — various stages of stoned incomprehension — on Brandi and Ronnie’s late date at a restaurant. Peña’s Dennis, the second in command, is truly a mall manager’s nightmare: cocaine, booze, dressing-room peeper photos, midnight store burglaries after everyone goes home, etc.

The trouble is not confined to the mall. Liotta’s Detective Harrison is a burned-out version of the rampaging cop he played in Unlawful Entry, too bored to do much more than idly torment Ronnie’s ambition to join the force as a real live policeman. And at home, Ronnie’s mother (Celia Weston) is a stupefied senior citizen who mixes medicine with hard liquor to help her through the evenings of TV. Nell the bakery cashier, Ronnie’s afterthought love interest, confined to a wheelchair because she can’t afford health insurance, is the only remotely sympathetic figure in the film, and we get the feeling she’s only there as pathos bait. What she sees in Ronnie is a mystery. Maybe he’s the only guy kind enough to speak to her.

Other than Nell, the one character with anything approaching integrity is the flasher, played by out-of-shape Randy Gambill as the only person in the mall with nothing to lose. If the flasher were intended as the moral center of Observe and Report, we’d be forced to appoint him the designated hero. As it is, it’s enough to just guffaw mindlessly and let it go at that.

Goodbye Solo also journeys deep into the heart of Middle America, and if its discoveries are a little more commonplace and its concerns a trifle more conventional than the nonstop derision of Observe and Report, chalk that up to filmmaker Ramin Bahrani. In his understated yet heavily freighted story of two lonely men awkwardly bonding in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, director/cowriter Bahrani — an Iranian American who wrote the film with Bahareh Azimi as a follow-up to their New York-ish indie Chop Shop — relies perhaps a little too heavily on the two actors’ performances.

Solo (played by Ivory Coast native Souléymane Sy Savané) is a talkative Winston-Salem taxi driver who lives with a Latina named Quiera (Carmen Leyva) and her precocious nine-year-old daughter Alex (Diana Franco Galindo), who interacts in a wholesomely loving way with her stepdad. Solo is the sort who’s always promoting something, never at a loss for words to the point of annoyance.

Contrast him with William, a taciturn, bitter old man Solo picks up in his taxi one night — no kids, wife left him thirty years ago, and he looks to be shutting down his life. William is played by Red West, one of Elvis Presley’s original Memphis Mafia entourage, as the type of tough Southerner who’d rather drink muddy water out a hollow log than have anything to do with an African immigrant like Solo. Their interrelationship nevertheless grows, with dubious hints of Driving Miss Daisy, into a fairly routine border-crossing drama built around both men’s need for affection. As a diary of travels in multiculti America, it’s in the same bag as The Visitor, for better or worse.


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