Paul Blart: Mall Cop

[27 May 2009]

By Andrew Winistorfer

As if we needed more proof that critical appraisal has little bearing on box office receipts, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, a movie that got rightfully slagged upon release by every self-respecting film critic, has made almost $180 million worldwide. That’s $40 million more than the take for Slumdog Millionaire, which won Best Picture at the Oscars, and was out in limited release for three months longer than Mall Cop.

Superficially, it’s not hard to see how Mall Cop made as much as it did. It had the benefit of coming out in the vacuous hole of a movie month that is January, and was promoted on TV at a frequency rivaled only by Barack Obama coverage during that time. It also boasted a semi-star in Kevin James, America’s de facto portly comedian of choice.

Mall Cop had the cosign of Adam Sandler, whose Happy Madison production company bankrolled the film, perhaps to make it up to James for starring in the even worse I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. The stars aligned perfectly, and Paul Blart: Mall Cop was the year’s first blockbuster.

But the success of Mall Cop overshadows the fact that it is one of the most thoroughly inoffensive movies to be rolled out by a studio thus far in 2009. Hannah Montana: The Movie featured more pathos and conflict. Observe and Report, which had the unfortunate distinction of being the second mall cop movie out this year, mixed violence and self-delusion in a messier but more entertaining way.

From its hokey plot, its endless barrage of supposed jokes, and extreme sports villains, Mall Cop passes by without surprise, tension, comedy, or anything beyond milquetoast amusement. It’s like getting a hug and a kiss from your grandma at Christmas: You know what’s coming, it goes on a little bit too long, and you’re slightly embarrassed when it’s over.

Being released to DVD a mere four months after it debuted in theaters, Mall Cop is out this month in an extras-packed edition fit for a movie of better quality. There’s commentary from director Steve Carr and James, deleted scenes, and featurettes about the mall and the athletes who play the villains. While sure to be a great find for anyone who wants to know what it was like to shoot a movie in a mall (it was cool, apparently), the extras are just window dressing that get close to running longer than the film’s mercifully brief 90-minutes.

Mall Cop, as its title indicates, is about titular hero Paul Blart and his daily grind of working security at a mall in New Jersey. He’s tried eight times to make the State Patrol Unit, but his hypoglycemia prevents him from finishing the obstacle course every year. So he’s stuck riding a Segway (which already seemed stale as a joke by the third season of Gob riding one on Arrested Development) and trying to get mall goers to respect him for being something more than a loser in a uniform.

He’s constantly encouraged in his endeavors by the love of his daughter (played by Raini Rodriguez) and his mom (played by Shirley Knight), who try to get him to find a new woman after his Mexican ex-wife ran off once she gained legal residency (this is supposed to funny). Paul thinks he’s found a new girl when he meets wig saleswoman Amy (played by Jayma Mays), but strikes out early when he makes a fool of himself at a bar.

It’s off to the races when a group of criminals, played by BMX riders, skateboarders, and free runners, take over the mall on Black Friday in an effort to steal $30 million in receipts. If you’ve seen any movie, ever, you know how Mall Cop ends: Blart gets the girl, thwarts the criminals, and finally feels like his life has some consequence.

But what sets Mall Cop apart from other heist comedies is its resolute blandness. We’re supposed to be worried for Blart as he faces off against mean-looking criminals (and by mean-looking, I mean they scowl and have tattoos), who he proceeds to vanquish in inconsequential and anti-climactic fashion (like falling on them in a ball pit). Producer Todd Garner and James talk in the special features about how the movie is like Die Hard, but even Live Free or Die Hard has more believable action sequences and Bruce Willis launches a motorcycle into a helicopter in that trash heap of a film. 

Plot (in)authenticity aside, Mall Cop is threadbare in the laugh department. Many of the comedic set pieces could be seen during any hour of Nickelodeon’s programming schedule, and the script seems written by the same brain trust that writes those shows (sadly, its written by James and Nick Bakay).

There’s a lot of joke mileage given to Blart being hypoglycemic (he passes out at inopportune times like the narcoleptic from Deuce Bigalow), Blart being overweight (he eats a lot), and Blart being a pathetic loser (he gets no matches on Match.com). Nearly every joke in Mall Cop has already been told on every terrible comedy sitcom (including James’s The King of Queens) and during every equally terrible comedy, leading not to mild smirks at best, but more often indifferent shoulder shrugs.

The only thing Mall Cop has going for it is James, who, despite being relegated to Sandler-produced dreck, can never be blamed for not trying. He attempts to give Blart a human edge, succeeding in playing up the drama of raising a daughter alone while feeling ineffectual and lonely, with a faint trace of desperation and resignation, which James has never shown before.

But like most of Mall Cop, the parts that show genuine human behavior are tossed aside to make room for a scene showing Blart putting peanut butter on cake. Because, in case you forgot, Paul Blart is fat.

Have there been worse comedies than Mall Cop? Certainly. But few of them made $180 million for no laughs, no fun, and no entertainment.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/93927-mall-cop/