One of these days I’ll have to watch a rerun of “King of Queens,” the sitcom Kevin James starred in for like 18 years. I’ve heard from reliable sources that it’s actually funny (unlike most sitcoms), and what I’ve seen of James elsewhere — as in “Hitch,” for example, and even parts of “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry” — has amused me.
But now we come to “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.” This dim-bulb, family-oriented slapstick film benefits greatly from James’ knack for physical comedy (he’s astonishingly agile for a big guy), but it’s ultimately too bland and uninspired even for a talented performer to improve. James co-wrote it with “King of Queens” producer/writer Nick Bakay, then handed the directorial reins to Steve Carr, whose previous PG comedies, which include “Daddy Day Care,” “Rebound,” and “Are We Done Yet?,” should not have inspired confidence.
James plays the title character, a devoted single father who has flunked out of the New Jersey police academy several times due to his hypoglycemia, which apparently makes him fall asleep if he doesn’t eat a candy bar every five minutes or so. Lacking what it takes to be a cop, he has done what most other police academy washouts do: grow the mustache anyway and become a security guard.
His post is a shopping mall, and he approaches the gig with far more zeal and dedication than it warrants — which for a long time is the film’s only joke. He has no real authority, and he gets no real respect. Riding up on his Segway, he’ll pull over an elderly scooter-bound “motorist” for weaving in and out of pedestrian traffic. He teaches a trainee (Keir O’Donnell) to always reach for his right hip, to give the illusion he’s carrying a gun, which of course he isn’t. Because he’s only a mall cop, you see, not a real cop. Get it? Ahem. Is this thing on?
Some of this is amusing enough, and I like that rather than making Paul an object of ridicule, we’re meant to gently laugh at his foibles while still liking him as a character. He’s sweet and unassuming, taking his mall-cop duties seriously but never being obnoxious the way some mad-with-imaginary-power pseudo-authority figures do. He is inherently a Good Guy, not a straw man for us to feel superior to through mockery.
The meat of the film occurs on Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year, when a band of robbers takes over the mall, evacuates all the shoppers except for several hostages — including Amy (Jayma Mays), the pretty kiosk employee Paul has a crush on — and starts pillaging credit card numbers from all the stores. Paul is the lone employee left inside, so it befalls him to save the day, “Die Hard”-style.
Since it’s a PG comedy, you can expect lots of falling down and running into things (and only one gastrointestinal-related gag!), accompanied by dull-witted dialogue that oversimplifies everything and makes the easiest jokes possible. It’s not enough for the FBI agent (Bobby Cannavale) overseeing the standoff to doubt Paul’s abilities; he must also have been a high school classmate of Paul’s who used to pick on him, thus making it even sweeter when Paul shows him up. That kind of detail is unnecessary, except insofar as it elevates Paul’s hero status in the mind of a young viewer.
And this is definitely for young and/or undiscerning viewers, a simple comedy, not unpleasant but not particularly funny, either. You could do worse for a family outing. You could also do a lot better.
C- (1 hr., 27 min.; )