By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
Each generation's comedy icons inevitably do something so contradictory to what makes them stars that fans don't easily forgive. Not the typical, flip-a-coin stretch into dramatic roles but comedy so pitch black that it isn't funny, so cruel that it hurts to watch.
Jim Carrey is still living down The Cable Guy. John Belushi never recovered from Neighbors. Adam Sandler probably wishes he never read Punch Drunk Love. Even Charlie Chaplin had his Monsieur Verdoux moment.
Now Seth Rogen, the face of Facebook generation humor, has Observe and Report to confuse and polarize moviegoers.
Rogen's new movie contains elements of his previous ones — drug abuse, penis sight gags, graphic violence, gutterspeak — but this time they feel inflicted on viewers rather than shared by a bong buddy. Each character in Jody Hill's film is so angrily degenerate that choosing anyone to support is impossible.
That strategy worked in Hill's The Foot Fist Way because nobody knew the actors, so nothing shocking they did could disappoint. Make over an amiably decadent persona like Rogen's into someone malevolent like mall cop Ronnie Barnhardt and you're asking for trouble.
Ronnie works in an Albuquerque mall, deluded by the power of his badge, flashlight and Taser. He may have been previously employed as a taxi driver, given his Travis Bickle paranoia and flashpoint fury. Ronnie wants to be a real policeman, and that's a frightening thought.
The mall is plagued by a serial flasher exposing himself to shoppers. Ronnie vows to capture the pervert before a real detective (Ray Liotta) does. That might open the door to a law enforcement career and impress the cosmetics clerk Brandi (Anna Faris), who Ronnie covets and who won't give him the time of day.
The outline and casting may sound fun, but Hill's execution isn't. Observe and Report isn't structured for humorous peaks but a steady drone of patently outrageous events. Brandi quaffs Ronnie's mood-altering medication — then cut to him humping her semiconscious body. A co-worker (Michael Pena) convinces Ronnie that a drug orgy and beating up skateboarders will improve his outlook. The final showdown with the flasher is exhibitionism at its cheapest level of humor, ending abruptly with one of the movie's few shocks that works.
This is Rogen's movie to carry or fumble. Mostly the latter happens. He rejects everything that usually works for him, violating the implicit compact every performer makes with fans, like it or not. Ronnie isn't a stoned brofriend you'd wish to share a buzz with, or Mr. Right in the wrong circumstances. Ronnie is a humorless sociopath. If he had any trace of something redeemable, at which Rogen excels, the movie would improve for it. As it stands, Observe and Report is just another example of Hollywood clout gone wrong.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.