Paul Blart: Mall Cop (United States, 2009)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Paul Blart: Mall Cop Poster

After stumbling through a lackluster first 30 minutes that features all the tepid humor one might reasonably expect from a mediocre comedy, Paul Blart: Mall Cop does something unexpected: it becomes watchable, perhaps even passably enjoyable. That's because this movie elevates its objective from lampooning mall security guards to satirizing one of Hollywood's biggest genres: the action/crime movie. In particular, Die Hard. To be sure, the iconic 1988 Bruce Willis film has been the subject of numerous big-screen parodies during the past two decades, but none has succeeded as well as this one. Considering the dubious quality of many of them, that could be considered damning with faint praise. And, although Paul Blart is by no means great cinema, there is amusement to be uncovered as we watch Kevin James bumble his way through actions oh-so-similar to those navigated with more blood, sweat, profanity, and dead bodies than Willis. Too bad there's no "Yippekayay...," but this is rated PG.

Paul Blart (Kevin James) is a rent-a-cop at a North Jersey mall. He doesn't get to carry a gun but he has a Segway to ride around on. Paul's ultimate dream is to join the New Jersey State police force, but hypoglycemia has thus far prevented him from completing the physically draining entrance exam. There's another point of dissatisfaction in Paul's life: he's lonely and dreams of finding Ms. Right, even though the on-line dating service in which his daughter (Raini Rodriguez) has enrolled him keeps telling him "You have no matches." Paul has his eye on Amy (Jayma Mays), the operator of a new kiosk at the mall, but he lacks the gumption to approach her. Meanwhile, he has the task of training a new security guard: Veck (Keir O'Donnell), who's only on duty because he couldn't get accepted for any other job. On Black Friday, however, Paul's life undergoes a radical change when terrorists take over the mall, locking the police out. The only one in a position to help the hostages and apprehend the bad guys is Paul.

I admit to having looked at my watch a few too many times during the movie's prolonged opening act as we "get to know" Paul. Like most one-dimensional comedy protagonists, he's not really worth spending so much introductory time with. The scenes of him going about his daily mall patrol duties, while arguably necessary to the setup, are rather dull. Kevin James imbues Paul with more likeability than we would get from, say, Adam Sandler, but it's a generic role. The film takes off, however, when it gets to the Die Hard stuff. This is actually a pretty clever way to rework the basic scenario of John McClane trapped on his own with a group of terrorists in a building. Paul Blart: Mall Cop refers either directly or indirectly to Die Hard numerous times (I can see a drinking game hereā€¦), and it's amusing to recognize how minimal tweaks can convert thrills into laughs.

The PG rating assures that the violence will be limited and cartoonish. There's a nod to this when Paul, apparently injured, peels back his shirtsleeve to reveal a tiny cut (upon which he places a childish band-aid). Would the film have been funnier had it been more graphic? Perhaps, but the essential innocence of the proceedings defuses anything resembling tension. Those who enjoy Paul Blart: Mall Cop will be watching purely for its comedic and satiric value, not because there's any inherent interest in how the storylines will be resolved.

Kevin James possesses the Teddy Bear factor that served John Candy well. Like Candy, James is a big man and plays characters with big hearts. He's a refreshing change from the Sandlers and Carreys who have dominated motion picture comedies with their often mean-spirited antics over the past 1 1/2 decades. And, unlike Will Ferrell, James isn't in a perpetual state of arrested adolescence. He's a regular guy. That's his charm. Here, he's a schlub who deserves more out of life but takes pride in the lowliest of jobs: being a mall security job. The term "loveable loser" was coined for this sort of individual.

I'm not going to claim that Paul Blart: Mall Cop deserves placement on anyone's movie schedule ahead of the many fine Oscar bait films against which it is competing. It's a juvenile motion picture designed primarily for a juvenile audience. But there's a little more here than one might reasonably expect and that makes it a passable choice for watching at home, when viewers tend to be less demanding. Certainly, the question of what Die Hard would have been like in a suburban mall with Kevin James as the hero offers the potential of a diverting 90 minutes. To the extent that this is Paul Blart: Mall Cop's goal, it can't be said to have failed.

Paul Blart: Mall Cop (United States, 2009)

Director: Steve Carr
Cast: Kevin James, Keir O'Donnell, Jayma Mays, Raini Rodriguez, Stephen Rannazzisi, Peter Gerety, Bobby Cannavale
Screenplay: Kevin James & Nick Bakay
Cinematography: Russ T. Alsobrook
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 1:27
U.S. Release Date: 2009-01-16
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1