Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Paul Blart: Mall Cop / ** (PG)

Paul Blart: Kevin James
Amy: Jayma Mays
Veck Sims: Keir O’Donnell
Maya Blart: Raini Rodriguez
Mom: Shirley Knight
Chief Brooks: Peter Gerety
Commander Kent: Bobby Cannavale
Sergeant Howard: Adam Ferrara

20th Century Fox Presents a film directed by Steve Carr. Written by Kevin James & Nick Bakay. Running time: 91 min. Rated PG (for some violence, mild crude and suggestive humor, and language).

I often hear people saying the state of movies has gone downhill, that movies aren’t as good as people remember them being from their childhood. The state of movies has certainly changed since my own childhood. Although the ‘80s saw the rise of greed on Wall Street, the rise of the Aids epidemic, the danger of our dependence on nuclear power, even the Cold War raged on throughout that decade; it was a more innocent time and the movies of the ‘80s reflected that. They were happier movies, where sinister plots were placed upon people who were idyllically good, and because of their goodness they prevailed. These plots were really quite silly and unlikely, but they were also fun and escapist. They worked better if you didn’t really think about them.

“Paul Blart: Mall Cop” could have fit in well amongst the movies of the ‘80s. It’s a light-hearted comedy about an overweight mall cop with aspirations of joining the New Jersey State Troopers. Kevin James (“The King of Queens”) plays the loveably pathetic Paul Blart. We meet Blart during a physical training test for the state troopers. He’s quite adept at the obstacle course despite his size but is undone by his hypoglycemia before he finishes the course.

Another failed test and Blart is back at work as a ten-year veteran mall security guard, although he informs one of the mall vendors, “in the industry we prefer ‘officer’.” Blart zooms around the mall and pretty much everywhere else on a Segway. Many of the movie’s good chuckles come from the use of this prop, including a sequence where Blart is chased by a neighborhood dog.

Blart is being urged by his mom (Shirley Knight, “Grandma’s Boy”) and daughter (Raini Rodriguez) to pursue a love interest. He finds that interest in the form of a vendor who sells hair extensions at a booth called Unbeweavable. Ha, ha. Ho, ho. Amy (Jayma Mays, “Epic Movie”) is a sexy little oddball that just might be able to see Blart as the cuddly lug he is. There is the obligatory misunderstanding between the potential couple when Blart accidentally gets drunk at an after work party. Blart doesn’t drink. This scene is quite inexplicable beyond the fact that without it the movie would run only a little over an hour.

Eventually the movie gets around to its plot, a heist of the mall’s credit card system by a bunch of talented criminals lead by Veck Sims (Keir O’Donnell, “Pathology”). How’s that for a villain’s name? These criminals have the mad skilz to put them in league with Hanz Gruber’s team in “Die Hard” or even put them up against Bond trying to take over the world, but here they’re knocking over a mall on Black Friday. Despite their seriousness, that shopping mall/’80s do-gooder mood of the movie allows the audience to realize there is no chance that Blart won’t be able to take them down in the end.

And yet, there is a feeling from the performances and the lackluster direction of Steve Carr (“Are We Done Yet?”) that suggests they don’t really believe in these everything-will-turn-out-alright values. None of the jokes have much punch to them. The only gags that work whole-heartedly are the physical comedy foul-ups of James. There is also a sense that the filmmakers didn’t really stray from the script much with improvisation. There seem to be a lot of missed opportunities for gags, most notably during the Rainforest Café sequence where James doesn’t capitalize on the obvious opportunities to spoof some known quantity films like “Rambo”, “Predator”, or “Apocalypse Now”.

This is a movie that tries to recapture the innocence of the eighties. It’s an accurate reproduction of the values of that time period in popular filmmaking. And it proves that in reflection movies may have actually improved since that time. The fact that it may not be as well made as some eighties comedies makes “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” much like its titular character. It doesn’t aspire to much, and it still falls slightly short of the mark.

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