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“Observe and Report” a bizarre, twisted character study

Seth Rogen and Anna Farris redefine the term "odd couple" in "Observe and Report."

Seth Rogen and Anna Farris redefine the term "odd couple" in "Observe and Report."

Ronnie Barnhart gets no respect, no respect. The head of security at Forest Ridge Mall, he can’t get a date with the lusty dim-bulb make-up counter girl Brandi (Anna Faris); can’t convince his by-the-book boss (Dan Bakkedahl) to let him carry a gun; can’t trust his mother (Celia Weston) to do anything but get drunk, soil her pajamas and pass out in a heap on the carpet. Then a pervert (Randy Gambill) runs amok in the mall, flashing Brandi, and Ronnie sees a chance to change his luck. And he rips into the flasher investigation with the unrepentant zeal of a man who lives so far inside his own delusions it’s a wonder he can interact with other people at all.

Now, I told you all of that to tell you this: No amount of nutshelling or explaining or summarizing can prepare you for the hot, flaming box of crazy that is Jody Hill’s pitch-black, acidly funny and wildly unnerving “Observe and Report.” Hill, the crackpot genius behind “The Foot Fist Way” (didn’t see it? don’t worry; only four people did) and HBO’s “Eastbound & Down,”  creates a similarly twisted world here, where the hero’s clearly psychotic squirrel bait with a God complex but everyone’s too scared (Charles, a mall employee who gets roped into being part of Ronnie’s kill-the-flasher task force) or too high (Michael Pena) or too bored (the Yuen twins, who know their way around automatic weapons) not to play along.

And Rogen’s steely-eyed Ronnie is an intriguing character to be sure; he’s crazy, sure, but the kind of crazy that’s contagious, that spreads and gives worker drones something to do besides yell at kids to stop jumping in the fountain. Rogen does fairly admirable work making Ronnie — this cringe-worthy statement is true — a sympathetic character (if you can feel sympathy for a guy who seems a whole lot like a pre-clock tower Charles Witman). He’s delusional, yes, and violent, but we root for him because we sense he’s grabbing frantically at any power he can get. There’s something endearing but extremely unnerving about that.

And had Hill zeroed in on Ronnie’s laundry list of psychological issues, “Observe and Report” might have been a disturbing but thought-provoking character study, kind of like “Punch Drunk Love” with more gore. But Hill gets cocky and overambitious; he lobs in so many characters and plots that he can’t begin to develop them all … so he doesn’t. Ronnie’s conflict with Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta looking, well, like Ray Liotta always looks: tense, pissed off and a hair trigger from bashing your brains out on the nearest brick wall) feels tacked on. There’s a potential date rape scene that gets left in the dust. One riotously funny character — Saddam (Aziz Ansari of “Parks and Recreation” fame) — delivers gut-busting lines that deserve more time. Ronnie’s relationship with his drunk mother gets, oh, 10 minutes of screen time, yet it deserves much more.

Which leads to an even bigger problem: Methinks Hill has serious issues with women. All the women in “Observe and Report” are used as props; they’re flat as flat gets. They’re all presented powerless and useless. Brandi’s a superficial sexpot, but the alternative — Nell (Collette Wolf), a gold cross-sporting mall employee rendered lame by a leg cast — is no better. Ronnie’s mother is a hopeless drunk who can’t hoist herself off the floor. Perhaps this is meant to make Ronnie seem stronger. If so, too bad, because it’s the chump choice, the easy one that takes no risks, and it doesn’t work in a movie that takes so many. I expect more from Hill, and this fainting women phase needs to come to an end. Give us some depth. In a movie unafraid to feature a five-minute chase scene with a flabby and, uh, flaccid naked man running free in the mall, is that too much to ask?

Grade: C-