As I noted in my review of Baby Mama, a major problem with the movie industry is that it’s designed to take in creative artists who’ve proved their talent and reward them with the opportunity to churn out mainstream nonsense for big-time bucks. You know a movie blows when it makes Tina Fey look like a hack for hire.
Well, there’s good news and bad news about the latest from writer-director Jody (The Foot Fist Way) Hill. The bad news is that it’s Seth Rogen’s Baby Mama moment. This is the guy who cowrote Superbad, for God’s sake. That makes him a genius in my comic book. When you factor in the inspired screen work he’s contributed to envelope-pushing pictures such as that one, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Pineapple Express, you’re talking about one of the truly indispensable careers in postmillennial comedy.
So it’s no surprise Hollywood has chosen to bestow on Rogen its brass ring, its reward for singular and undeniable talent: It’s given him a lot of money and the opportunity to play the lead in a movie he probably wouldn’t have bothered to watch just a few years back. This isn’t the kind of film you make your name with; it’s the kind you make after you’re established and figure you can slip in a just-for-the-paycheck project every now and then between pictures that show you’ve still got it. It is, in point of fact, a mere handful of running jokes and penis gags away from being Paul Blart: Mall Cop.
The good news, I’m pleased to report, is that a few of those jokes and gags are funny enough to make the movie worth observing. Rogen stars as Ronnie Barnhardt, the head of security for a generic shopping mall. Ronnie is tubby (the film was shot before Rogen signed on with Jenny Craig or whatever), crew-cut and bipolar. He’s delusional as well, insofar as deep down he wishes he were — you’ll never guess — a real police officer and not just a rent-a-cop. He’s convinced that if he apprehends a flasher who’s recently begun harassing female customers, he’ll be recognized by the law-enforcement community and, through some mysterious process, given a badge, a gun and a job with the boys in blue.
Ray Liotta does a bit of slumming here as the detective assigned to the flasher case. Ronnie resents this infringement on his turf and gets into a series of confrontations with him, not a single one of which I can recall finding remotely humorous.
Two women, in fact, provide virtually all the laughs in the film. Anna Faris plays Brandi, a makeup-counter hottie with whom even Ronnie isn’t delusional enough to think he has a chance. He winds up on a date with her anyway, thanks to a convenient plot contrivance, and is amazed to discover she has a secret side. She downs shots like they’re water and her larynx is on fire. They share a romantic moment late in the evening when she yaks just as Ronnie plants one on her. I could be mistaken, but I don’t believe even the Farrellys have attempted the puke-kiss.
Celia Weston turns in one of the towering lush portrayals of all time in the role of Ronnie’s mom (with whom, naturally, he still lives). Their relationship may be a minor subplot, but their after-work, late-evening exchanges in front of the family TV make for some of the most transcendent black comedy this side of Bad Santa.
“You’re handsome ... from certain angles,” Mom slurs on one occasion. Deep in despair one morning, Ronnie drinks in her moving monologue of reassurance. “Do you really mean all that?” he asks. “No,” she answers, “I’m drunk. It just seemed like the kind of stuff a mother’s supposed to say.” My heart sank every time one of Weston’s scenes ended.
The rest of the movie is a slapdash mix of the obvious and the derivative punctuated by brief flashes of loony invention. Rogen has his moments, but ultimately gives perhaps the least memorable performance of his career. Hill attempts to shock his audience by such tactics as flirting with political incorrectness (Ronnie has a feud with a Middle Eastern mall employee he calls Saddam [Aziz Ansari]). He also slips in sudden outbursts of bloody violence — which might have proved more shocking if we hadn’t watched pretty much the same thing done better in Pineapple Express — and devotes the movie’s climax to a chase through the mall featuring Ronnie, the flasher (Randy Gambill) and the flasher’s jiggling junk. For some reason the phrase “audience member” kept repeating in the back of my head.
I’ll tell you what is shocking: The film’s creator claims he based it on Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Now, that’s what I call delusional.