If Paul Blart: Mall Cop had been made 20 years ago, it would have starred John Candy. That's a complement, by the way. Candy had a knack for playing bungling, yet good-hearted people who mainly wanted to please. He certainly specialized in playing people who tried too hard to be nice to cover up past pain. There's a lot of this in Kevin James' performance as the title character here. He's more than just a comic goofball. James turns him into a likable and surprisingly sympathetic hero that we find ourselves cheering for by the end.
Kevin James rose to fame on television starring on the sitcom, The King of Queens, and has been trying to break into movies for a while now. He's acted along side stars like Will Smith and Adam Sandler, but this is his first shot at a stand-alone starring role. Sandler is still there behind the scenes (His Happy Madison production company produced the film.), but this is James' film all the way, and he doesn't waste the opportunity. His Paul Blart is admirable in a way. He's overweight and he suffers from hypoglycemia, but he always tries to do the right thing. He's passionate about his job as a mall cop, but he'd really like to be a police officer on the street. He's taken the physical entrance exam many times, but his health problems have prevented him from finishing. He makes up for his shortcomings by being the best mall cop he can be, and by also being a good single father to his teen daughter (Raini Rodriguez), who respects him and wishes he could fall in love again. Paul has his eyes on a young woman named Amy (Jayma Mays), who also works at the mall. The first half hour or so of the film is devoted to Paul's life, and it certainly helps us get into his corner when the actual plot kicks in.
It's Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year, and some high tech criminals stage a lock down and a hostage situation at the mall as they pull off their theft plan. They place motion sensors and small bombs at the entrances, so no one can get in or out. They think they've removed everyone from the building, but didn't notice Paul was in the back of the arcade playing Guitar Hero. When he emerges from the arcade, he quickly learns about the hostage situation, and discovers that both Amy and his daughter are amongst them. This kicks off the main action, where Paul must use his resources around him to out think and outrun the criminals while keeping everyone alive. I liked this aspect of the story, and how Paul Blart actually has to be clever in order to outsmart the captors. The movie is rated PG, so it's never too violent or scary for kids, which is the perfect target audience for the film. They'll like the film's gentle and goofy humor, and accompanying adults may find themselves charmed by Blart himself.
I never laughed out loud while watching this movie, but I did smile a lot, and I found myself caring more about the main character than I imagined. Let me tell you, that's more than I expected walking into a movie called Paul Blart: Mall Cop. There's plenty of sweetness during the early moments, establishing Paul's shy relationship with Amy, and the caring one he shares with his daughter. When the time comes for him to be a hero, we can cheer for him, because the movie makes him into a true underdog. He's constantly battling with his own shortcomings and health issues, and it's clever the way he keeps on finding ways to keep himself going, driven by saving the ones he loves. If I'm making the movie sound too serious, it's not. There's plenty of slapstick gags, surprisingly no bodily fluid or toilet humor to be found, and some pretty good physical comedy on display. If there's any major shortcoming to be found, it's that the movie is pretty inconsequential, and will probably be forgotten by me a few months from now.
Still, considering the kind of junk that usually clogs theaters in early January, Paul Blart certainly is not bad. I imagine the movie will make a good rental, since its somewhat small scale will make it perfect for watching on TV rather than the big screen. If anything, it's one step closer to making James the cross-over star he obviously wants to be. I wouldn't mind seeing the same kind of likability he gives here in a less juvenile script. He's on to something here, he's just gotta find the project where he really knocks one out of the park.