This is one seriously fucked-up movie. “Travis Bickle, Mall Cop”? Almost. Nearly. Consider two types of return: The return of the prodigal, the return of the repressed. In writer-director Jody Hill’s “Observe and Report,” as Ronnie Barnhardt, a heavily medicated, prone-to-delusion rent-a-cop, Seth Rogen captures vainglorious delusion in a comic style that steadily grows from a disenchanted cipher to something far more paranoid and cruel.
One archetypal narrative progression from Ancient Greece to today could be smooshed together like this: the Odyssey and its story of returning from war led centuries later to John Ford’s “The Searchers” (1956), with John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards searching not for homeland but for his Comanche-soiled niece who was kidnapped as a small child. “The Searchers” was a template for “Taxi Driver,” in which screenwriter Paul Schrader offered a scene missing from “The Searchers,” in which the captive female is shown in the company of her captor. Schrader also offers a Madonna-whore dichotomy, between Travis Bickle’s perceived angel-turned-whore in his mind, Betsy (Cybil Shepherd), and the child-whore-turned-angel, Iris (Jodie Foster). And so we arrive at the present end of history, with writer-director Jody Hill outright remaking “Taxi Driver” for a rapidly aging new century. Hill offers two females for Ronnie’s attention or inattention: Anna Faris’ deliriously vital dunce of a makeup-counter clerk, and Collette Wolfe as the avowedly virginal Cinnabon barista with a busted leg. Each character has a bit of Iris and a bit of Betsy, and Faris manages to pull comic dignity from a scene that involves a puke-crusted date rape after the ingestion of many shots and much of Ronnie’s Clonazepam. Of course, when he abruptly stops taking the drug, he gets crazier and speeches that echo Travis “Taxi Driver” voice-overs and shooting gallery scenes take on melodramatic import. (Let’s posit Ray Liotta’s frustrated cop as a parallel to Harvey Keitel’s pimp character, Sport, a competitive masculine force that challenges the protagonist in both movies.) The Forest Ridge Mall, shot in New Mexico, is revealed as the equal of Scorsese’s Lower East Side den of iniquity, just as crime-ridden and drug-fueled and rife with delusions as the heat-wave-stricken summer of 1975 in the Lower East Side of “Taxi Driver.” Another nod: Scorsese quotes Godard’s “Two or Three Things I Know About Her,” having a spaced-out Travis peer into a coffee mug where a swirl of cream becomes the pattern of the universe. With characteristic bitter knowingness, Hill and cinematographer Tim Orr (“All the Real Girls,” “Raising Victor Vargas”) shoot their sneak-into-the-cup from medium distance instead of close-up, but the citation remains: this matter atop a Styrofoam cup is the universe of these characters, days measured out in bursts of sub-Starbucks roast. The ending seems to imply unreality: Ronnie could be as delusional as Travis at the end when Betsy gets into his cab. And the exceptionally violent shooting that precedes that scene is in hailing distance of several bits of the slaughter at the end of “Taxi Driver.” Celia Weston is bold as Randy’s openly alcoholic mother, as is a lisping Michael Peña as his affectionate second. “At this point in my life, I feel like I could destroy some motherfuckers!” Ronnie declares, and you hope there aren’t people like this in real life. Are there? Scorsese’s got a lovechild and it’s an ugly, angry sonofabitch. 87m. Widescreen. (Ray Pride)