A film review by Craig J. Koban

PAUL BLART: MALL COP jjj

2009, PG, 87 mins.

Paul Blart: Kevin James / Veck Sims: Keir O'Donnell / Mom Blart: Shirley Knight / Kent: Bobby Cannavale

Directed by Steve Carr / Written by Kevin James and Nick Bakay .

"Safety never takes a holiday."

So says Paul Blart (played with a sincere comic earnestness by Kevin James), a disbelievingly serious minded, strict and by-the-books mall security officer in the new family action comedy, PAUL BLART: MALL COP.  I have personally worked in a mall for the past several years and I have seen my share of ruthlessly narcissistic and ego-heavy security guards that place their jobs on a higher pedestal than they maybe deserve (granted, it sometimes can be dangerous work), but Paul Blart is a different type of mallrat crusher altogether.

Just how serious does he take his job?  In one of the film’s funnier moments, he pulls over an elderly man in a motorized scooter, who is bobbing and weaving through the droves of human traffic.  Blart instructs the poor man to pull over and informs him that he was driving “needlessly and erratically.”  When he attempts to give the old coot a mall traffic citation, he incredulously looks at Blart and shouts, “Are you kiddin’ me!?”  

He’s not.  Blart has big dreams that cannot be held within the confines of his cozy job at the mall.  He deeply aspires to be a state police officer and, despite his horrendous physical girth, he actually is quite dexterous and able bodied.  He has one kink in his determined armor: he suffers from hypoglycemia, which causes him to topple over head first to the floor with very little notice, and at highly inopportune times.  Because of his debilitating condition, Blart is in no shape to join the State Patrol and must take a job as a lowly and terribly underappreciated mall security officer at a shopping center in West Orange, NJ..  

To make matters ever worse, he has a daughter (in a cute performance by young Raini Rodriguez) from a broken marriage (the woman he met, fell in love with, and married royally dumped him, probably because she was seeking a green card from the government) and is forced to live at home with his mother.  Blart is also a very lonely chap and, like all timid and shy men that have a difficult time finding love, he tries his luck on an Internet dating site.  Sadly, when he checks it daily, he has no matches.  Maybe his real problem is with moving on: When his daughter asks him for some input as to the type of woman he’s looking for on the web, he sheepishly tells her, “Well...your mom was nice.” 

Alas, Blart does have one escape from misery and self-loathing despair: his job, which takes him through the excruciatingly monotonous daily toil of riding his Segue in and out of stores to impart his brand of mall justice, which is so stern and severe that it makes him the laughing stock of his colleagues (one of them amusing tells him, “Why don’t you just clock in, work, clock out, and go home like a normal person?”).  No matter inordinately uncompromising Blart is without loosening up on the job (enforcing mall security is not just a job to him), he does manage to let his defenses down and become smitten with a cute new mall kiosk owner named Amy (the bright eyed and very cute Jayma Mays).  Their first encounter is not ideal (she catches Paul staring at her and, while he takes his eyes off the path in front of him, he slams himself and his Segue into a nearby van).   

However awkward his attempts at wooing Amy are, she does find the introverted and bashful Blart kind of appealing.  She invites him out for drinks at a local watering hole, but Paul decides that he must be on very good behaviour, firstly to impress Amy and secondly to ensure that he does not overindulge and become sick for his next day on the job, Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the US retail year.  He shows up with some new buddies, including a lowly recruit under his wings named Veck (Keir O’Donnell, whom you may remember as the gothic gay artist that tries to seduce Vince Vaughn in WEDDING CRASHERS), a typical twenty-something slacker that can’t get any other job.  Unfortunately for Blart, things go south real fast when he accidentally gorges on margaritas and becomes so sloshed that he not only distances himself from Amy, but the next day he wakes up with a migraine from hell. 

Now, most of these moments in PAUL BLART occur with the first twenty or thirty minutes, and aside from a few giggles here and there, the first third of the film is a relative comedy dead zone: silence filled the theatre that I screened it at with a packed crowd, not a good sign for any comedy.  Despite the best efforts of James at crafting a bumbling and likeable loser character that would have made the late John Candy proud, too much of the opening of PAUL BLART  slumbers and meanders from one routine scene to the next. For a film that’s barely 90 minutes long, it certainly takes this one an awfully long time to build to something.  My watched was checked feverously during this time...more than I should have. 

Yet, something kind of surprising happened next: PAUL BLART goes from being a rudimentary and unfunny farce about mall security guards and radically changes gears for its final hour and becomes a very crafty and humorous spoof of the first DIE HARD film.  As Blart arrives on the job after his all-night binger he shockingly discovers that the mall has been seized by a systematically organized group of grungy, Gen-X, extreme sport loving criminals (they swoop in on skateboards and roller blades and look like they were just plucked off of the set of LORDS OF DOGTOWN).  The leader of the group has a mission that seems eerily similar to Hans Gruber in the 1988 Bruce Willis action vehicle: He is going to steal millions of dollars from the mall buy cracking the malls computers, but whereas Gruber was stealing barer bonds, this baddie is going to use high tech gadgets to gets credit card authorization codes from all of the stores’ Debit terminals to steal his millions, all while staling the authorities outside.  The villains have forced all mall patrons and workers outside and have tightly locked up the mall, but they have a small group of hostages, Amy being included among them. 

Oh…and Paul Blart is there (not among the captured), and in pure John McClane fashion, he’s “the wrong guy at the wrong place at the wrong time.”  At first, he whimpers like a baby and attempts to flee, but when he realizes that his beloved Amy is one of the hostages, he takes matters into his own hands at enables himself to become a one-man kick ass squad that uses the mall’s resources – and merchandise – in highly resourceful and cunning ways to stop his adversaries, save the day, and get the girl.  That is…unless his hypoglycemia does not kick in. 

As stated, the opening scenes involving the day-to-day activities of Blart’s mall duties and domestic life are dull to the extreme, but if you can make it through those tedious scenes then PAUL BLART becomes a real come from behind comedy with some fresh and satiric laughs, a jovial and wonderfully physical comedic performance by James, and some real ingenuity, especially with the way Blart uses his innate knowledge of the layout and stores of the mall to his advantage (one of the best and most uproarious moments in the film shows how he uses hockey goalie equipment as an effective bit of camouflage in a sporting goods store to prey upon his victims).  The film’s script, co-written by James himself, not only displays a lot of craftiness with how Blart uses the mall as a weapon, but it also has many shrewd and cute references to DIE HARD, which many adults will appreciate. 

One large reference is the notion that Blart is seen as a misunderstood loose canon on the inside by the officers that gather on the outside to secure the building.  The SWAT team comes in to take over (much as the FBI did in DIE HARD), much to the chagrin of the cops and even more so to Blart’s boss, who is communicating to him via walkie-talkie.  The film has some fun spoofing a similar moment in DIE HARD, especially when the SWAT leader grabs the walkie talkie from Blart’s boss and screams into it, “I am the only one you’ll be communicating to from now on, Blart!”  Seconds later Blart’s boss receives a cell phone call while standing behind the enraged SWAT leader…it’s Blart, who has seen enough action movies to know that there is more than one way to get in contact with your friends on the outside.  There is also another very funny attack on the clichés of the types of DIE HARD-esque movies that we have seen over the years:  Blart’s boss attempts to help the police officers by jotting down a few strong and commanding phrases – recycled out of countless action/standoff movies – that the officer in charge can shout back at the crooks inside.  When the cop reads the list, he comes across the frequently used, “Yeah, you and what army?” to which the officer shakes his head and corrects the bumbling mall boss, “But…they have an army.” 

I liked all the film’s craftiness during these moments, not to mention that it offers up not one, but two genuinely unexpected plot twists that are better guarded than anything M. Night Shyamalan has attempted with his last three films.  PAUL BLART becomes even more rousing in its final legs because of the presence of Kevin James, who is goes on a short list of comedians that have fun at the expense of mocking their weight and wussy dispositions (one giddy scene has Blart limping away from a semi-violent altercation with a thug, after which he rolls up his shirt sleeve to reveal what we think will be a huge laceration, but instead it's a sliver of a cut about an inch long; Blart covers it with a band aid with happy faces on it).   

Perhaps what’s most refreshing about James’s performance here is that he plays a decent and ordinary outcast and not one of those unrelentingly crude, potty-mouthed, and violently aggressive main characters that have populated other Happy Madison comedies (which produced this film and many of the dreadfully and childishly unfunny Adam Sandler films).  Blart is a nice, calm-spoken, and amiable man that is easy to root for, and much of the comedy from James is the result of him finding the right modulation and tone, avoiding using any foul language or innuendo (which seems hard these days), and using his physical presence to sell the comedy.  Some of the action sequences that James finds himself in sometimes shows off his amazing nimbleness; just watch the way he scales and flings himself over a ten foot chain link fence with minimal effort.  Considering the actor’s mammoth façade, his catlike agility is kind of miraculous. 

PAUL BLART: MALL COP is very appropriately rated PG, which means that it’s definitely appropriate for the entire family.  Not only that, but this is one of those rare family films that does not dumb itself down and cater to audience members that are between the ages of five and ten.  The film certainly has its juvenile moments and its opening scenes leave a lot to be desired, but I was pleasantly surprised by the about face this comedy took in becoming a fairly affectionate and faithful homage/send-up of DIE HARD.  The film’s physical comedy will certainly appease young tykes, and Kevin James has an affectionate mug and innocent charm that’s easy to digest, but it's the neat sophistication and referencing to past action films will keep adults agreeably amused.  PAUL BLART: MALL COP is not high concept, nor is it a demanding comedy, but it's entertaining enough for a recommendation to families that have no desire to listlessly sit through another infantile, puerile, and vulgar Adam Sandler lewdfest. 

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