At the start of Paul Blart: Mall Cop, dramatic music builds while the camera navigates the minute details of an officer’s badge rotating against a black background. Cut to the New Jersey Police Training Facility, where we see Paul Blart (Kevin James), short and round and out of place in a line of tall, chiseled trainees. As they begin an obstacle course, Paul is not a miserable failure as you might expect, but surprisingly good at it, deftly scaling walls, running tires, and leaving his competitors in the dust.
But the movie isn’t called Paul Blart: State Trooper. And so Paul drops like a stone a foot from the finish line, flunking out at last. “We all have our cross to bear,” he explains to his daughter later, “Mine is called hypoglycemia.”
In this cute, mostly predictable, underdog story, Paul takes his job as a security guard at the West Orange Pavilion Mall very seriously. His fellow guards and the mall bully, pen salesman Stuart (Stephen Rannazzisi), take him for a joke. As he whips around the mall on his Segway, ticketing scooter-riding senior citizens and pining for new kiosk vendor Amy (Jayma Mays), Paul is a sort of loveable loser, a kinder version of Doug Heffernan, James’ character on The King of Queens. Although he’s mocked for suggesting security improvements to his bosses, Paul’s vigilance pays off when the mall is taken over by criminals looking to cash in on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year. Though he has his chance to escape the mall and leave the rescue effort in the hands of the local police and the FBI, Paul opts to stay and try to be the hero when he realizes that Amy is one of several hostages.
Paul Blart gets most of its laughs from its physical comedy. Some of it is good (Paul on his Segway is reminiscent of Arrested Development’s Gob) and some of it is painful, as when morbidly obese hot-sauce vendor Leon (Jamal Mixon) serves as a visual punchline. Although Paul is the butt of standard-issue fat jokes, Leon is degraded for amusement, the grossest instance being a totally pointless nacho-eating contest between him and Paul. It’s an uncomfortable and embarrassing scene, the general tenor repeated when Paul tries to hoist Leon up through the ceiling to escape the bad guys.
More odd than offensive, a weird gang of thieves leap around with almost superhuman abilities more fitting for the vampires in Twilight than petty hoodlums who rip through the mall on BMX bikes and skateboards. Just how they help to deliver the film’s pedestrian “message” isn’t entirely clear. While Paul’s nerdy over-preparedness and his motto that “safety never takes a holiday” are initially presented as laughable, he’s right — and so all the things he’s teased about are the tools that serve him best when the crisis comes. It’s almost refreshing that we are spared a Cinderella story: Paul is what he is and that, it turns out, is good enough.
Throughout the film, Paul has a penchant for trying to impress people with factoids, always leading off with “Fun fact for you…,” then launching into some little bit of trivia that leaves his listener shrugging in acceptance. It’s a fitting metaphor for this film, which is not especially useful or mind-blowing, but kind of innocuously fun.