Think “Travis Bickle: Mall Cop” and you’ll have some idea of what to expect from “Observe and Report,” writer-director Jody Hill’s shockingly and sometimes discomfortingly funny comedy about an unstable security guard who views himself as vigilant protector – and, occasionally, avenging angel – while patrolling a suburban shopping mall. Taking a setup that could have been played for sitcom jokiness and family-friendly slapstick, Hill attempts something much darker, if not downright transgressive, with a pic bound to divide auds and critics into love-it-or-leave-it camps when it opens April 10. It’s a gamble that might pay off handsomely for Warners. Or not.

With his hair cropped short, his waistline expanded and his overall vibe suggesting less lovable schlub than fascistic thug, Seth Rogen makes no effort to claim aud sympathy with a nervy lead performance that’s in perfect sync with the pic itself. Rogen keeps the aud off-balance in ways that aren’t always pleasurable, often indicating that, at any moment, funny business might devolve into serious mayhem – which, on at least three occasions, it does.

Rogen plays Ronnie Barnhardt, security chief at Forest Ridge Mall, a terse, tough-talking fellow who still lives at home with his alcoholic mom (Celia Weston), nurses a crush on a bosomy makeup-counter salesclerk (Anna Faris) and commands the other guards on his watch with the intensity of a Marine sergeant in a war zone.

When the mall is repeatedly stalked by a flasher, Ronnie views the perv as an affront to all that is decent and wholesome in Forest Ridge Mall. He also welcomes the hunt for this unwelcome visitor as a way of proving his potential to become a real police officer. Trouble is, someone who’s already a real police officer, the cynical and unsympathetic Det. Harrison (Ray Liotta), is called in by mall management to handle the situation.

For Ronnie, Harrison is an interloper in his jurisdiction. For Harrison, Ronnie is a klutzy rent-a-cop to be humored, then heckled.

Despite all the gleeful vulgarity and non-PC humor of the opening scenes, and despite all the clear signs that Ronnie has a ludicrously exaggerated (and entirely unjustified) sense of self-worth, it’s not until around the 20-minute mark that writer-director Hill reveals just how unconventional he intends “Observe and Report” to be. As a prank, Harrison drops Ronnie off in a rough neighborhood, to give the security guard a taste of “real cop” life. What follows is a sequence that is all the more hilarious because the violence is so seriously brutal.

Much like the cruel and clueless martial-arts instructor in Hill’s breakthrough debut feature, “The Foot Fist Way,” Ronnie is more complex, and much scarier, than the kind of self-deluding boob auds usually encounter in comedies of this sort. With the invaluable aid of Rogen, who’s never been better, Hill sustains an impressive degree of tension between seemingly contradictory elements. In fact, time and again throughout “Observe and Report,” it may strike some viewers that, with just a few tweaks of the script, the scenario could have been played straight as a psychological drama in the vein of “Taxi Driver” (even though the ending plays more like “The King of Comedy”).

At the same time, Hill earns big laughs with comic setpieces that are guaranteed to generate strong word of mouth. Highlights range from explosively funny gross-out gags – Faris is a great sport during the most amusing of these – to scenes of comic violence that elicit winces as well as laughs.

Supporting perfs are nicely disciplined across the board, so Faris and Weston are effectively uninhibited without seeming grotesque, and Liotta never betrays his character’s intimidating toughness with a wink or a nod. Other standouts include Colette Wolfe as a Toast-a-Bun barista who warms to Ronnie, and John and Matthew Yuan as twin brothers who toil as Ronnie’s most loyal underlings. Michael Pena is also memorable as the security chief’s loyal assistant.

Filmed on location in the largely abandoned Winrock Mall in Albuquerque, N.M., “Observe and Report” boasts production values that are unobtrusively sufficient. Pic makes inspired use of a semi-obscure oldie on the soundtrack, the Yardbirds’ “Over Under Sideways Down,” during a sequence that will make viewers guffaw until they’re thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

Observe and Report

  • Production: A Warner Bros. release, presented in association with Legendary Pictures, of a De Line Pictures production. Produced by Donald De Line. Executive producers, Andrew Haas, Marty Ewing, Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni, William Fay. Directed, written by Jody Hill.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Tim Orr; editor, Zene Baker; music, Joseph Stephens; production designer, Chris Spellman; art director, Masako Masuda; set designer, Robert Fetchman; set decorator, Helen Britten; costume designer, Gary Jones; sound (Dolby), Christopher Gebert; supervising sound editor, Terry Rodman; visual effects, Pacific Vision Prods.; assistant director, Milos Milicevic; second unit director, Gary Hymes; second unit camera, Michael A. Benson; casting, Sheila Jaffe. Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Spotlight Premieres), March 16, 2009. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 86 MIN.
  • With: Ronnie Barnhardt - Seth Rogen Det. Harrison - Ray Liotta<br> Dennis - Michael Pena Brandi - Anna Faris<br> Mark - Dan Bakkedahl Charles - Jesse Plemons John Yuen - John Yuan<br> Matt Yuen - Matthew Yuan<br> Mom - Celia Weston<br>Nell - Collette Wolfe<br> Saddamn - Aziz Ansari
  • Music By: