Hand on Hip: Mall Cops and Robbers
It’s a bit of a shame that dominating the box office charts in January is a bit analogous to being the world champion of indoor soccer. Generally acknowledged as a dumping ground for films that would fail in a more competitive season, the modestly-budgeted crowd-pleasers of late winter/spring may be a largely unimpressive lot, but they’re not really out to impress anyone. It’s tough to greet films with no discernible ambition with more than a critical shrug, for refusing to aim very high.
This is the problem for a film like Paul Blart: Mall Cop. It’s a star vehicle for a man who’s not really a movie star; it’s a comedy with a slack pace and PG-rated sense of humor. It doesn’t go for the gut, the nuts, or the intellect. It’s just sort of there to vaguely amuse, perhaps entertain. Certainly, it gives you someplace to go in the midwinter doldrums. I could curl up with a stupid movie at home, or I could get out and see a stupid movie at the cinema. While a lot of critics take offense to the notion of an uninspired comedy like Blart coming out at all (and they certainly take the opportunity to use its relative success to decry the fall of Western civilization), if it isn’t the film itself that won me over, it was perhaps the combination of the season and the leading man. Hollywood’s studios are in the middle of an all-out bidding war for the Academy Awards.1 Actors are out there re-promoting films that have found new legs (and new cash flow) with the nomination announcement last month. Cold snaps, snowfall, and short daylight hours conspire to afflict me with seasonal affective disorder, sinus infections, and a sore back from the shoveling/snowblowing duties. I’m sick of fighting the weather, and I’m already benumbed from the relentless Oscar campaigns. Lack of ambition fits me like a cozy pair of long johns right about now.
The story of Paul Blart is as routine as you might imagine: a loser with self-esteem problems and a coddling family meets a cute girl, and is provided with the chance to redeem/prove himself in everyone’s eyes when a wildly implausible situation (in this case, the holdup of a mall bank during Christmas season) presents itself.2 The Die Hard, Rambo, and Terminator parodies in the second and third acts of the film are predictable but mildly effective. Had the film persisted with the withering cross-section of mall life from the other side of the mallrat fence, it might have even been a surprisingly astute character study and incisive broadside — a perfect antidote to the post-holiday madness we’ve all suffered within the last several months. Though I’m loathe to criticize the film for simply being what it is, the first third of the film suggests a wealth of missed opportunities upon which I sincerely wish the filmmakers had capitalized. By going full-bore, they took the lazy route.
None of this is surprising. The secret weapon in Mall Cop’s arsenal is Kevin James. And what he does with his role is surprising.
Sincere, warm, and open, James doesn’t seem to be playing Paul Blart quite on the same level as Paul Blart. His performance is just a bit too real, too vulnerable; he’s the film’s object of ridicule, but James’s tone is pitched to inspire more sympathetic laughter than derision. When he finally gets a little of his own back in the film’s second half, the performance falls apart a little bit, because it’s not on the terms Blart set forth in the first.
In The King of Queens, James’s parcel deliveryman, Doug Heffernan, was not particularly likable. He also was a portly loser, but his more redemptive moments were tainted by the show’s working class cynicism, such as when Doug steals Carrie’s oxygen mask when the plane their on gets a bit bumpy, or when they blow a wad of money on vacation, only to discover expensive-to-eliminate mold has grown in their basement, despite Arthur’s vain attempts to draw attention to the problem. In most episodes, a “sitcom solution” was pitched at the end of the episode, bringing things back to status quo. In many episodes, however, saying “I’m sorry” or attempting to make up for it wasn’t really an option, and the credits rolled over the darker moments of an unhappy marriage. Clearly, St. Paul’s advice that you should never let the sun set on while you’re still angry never made it to the boroughs of New Yawk. The show’s finale provided little closure or reconciliation, either. James’s sitcom snorted at the notion of “wedded bliss,” presenting marriage more as a pissing contest welded in the fires of Purgatory, in which the characters “got by,” but they didn’t exactly rejoice at the prospect of living to fight another day.
In Mall Cop, James (as the script’s co-writer) presents a working-class optimism. The story is false, but the performance rang true, almost as if James is unconsciously afraid to let himself be a real actor in the same way that Blart unconsciously sabotages his own efforts to gain his peers’ respect. The interplay between Blart’s pride and dedication, and James’s development of his own persona are deftly illustrated, however inadvertently. When the credits roll for Paul Blart, marriage is bliss. Being happy at work — and proud of a job well done — is Zenlike acceptance. Doug Heffernan elicited no pity or empathy, whereas you feel a bit sorry for Paul Blart that a.) he’s in a very mediocre movie, and b.) he’s trying his damnedest to be happy with what he’s got, and people seem to hold that against him. Chances are, Doug would find a real-life Paul Blart annoying, but love watching his movie.I went to this film expected a few cheap laughs; as low as I set my expectations, there was virtually no way I could be disappointed. Instead, James alone raised the bar. The film failed him (and this is partially at his feet), but showed him more to advantage than perhaps a better film could have done at this point in his career. Like Kevin James himself, you might not expect much out of Paul Blart: Mall Cop, but it may turn out to have a few pleasant surprises (a scant few) if you look at the heart behind the badge.
Edited by Tracy McCusker.
- Witness the flash ads on any entertainment news Web site or TV commercials proclaiming, “WINNER!… Four ACADEMY AWARD nominations…” Because it’s an honor just to be nominated. So even the losers are winners. Didn’t you know that? ↩
- Like a lot of contemporary comedies, the female lead, Jayma Mays, isn’t given much to do outside of being a stock “dream girl.” She’s not a weak character, but she does unfortunately seem to exist to serve as a motive for male transformation. While the film won’t set feminist hearts afire, a significant difference between this and the Apatow school of comedy is that Paul Blart is not, at the beginning, an asshole. Casting a cutie like Mays may pamper the fantasies of the protagonist (and male filmmaking team), but she’s also not asked to put up with a lot of guff. If anything, Blart is as motivated by the love of his daughter and his intrinsic sense of duty to prove himself. Getting the girl is a bonus, but it doesn’t service a stridently anti-feminist streak. ↩