That’s not entirely fair. “Blart” co-writer and star Kevin James is well practiced at the balancing act of tenuous self-confidence and delicate ego. That’s the modus operandi of most comedies, but not many actors can actually manage it. Usually they exaggerate one end of the spectrum or the other, either the buffoonery or the self-assuredness, and it’s hard to care about a caricature.
And in other hands that’s exactly what Paul Blart would be. He’s a ten-year veteran of mall enforcement dealing with a failed marriage who’s had to have his mother move in to help him raise his daughter. He’s tried unsuccessfully to become a real cop, but mostly he wants to be good at his job, which he actually cares about doing well (much to the amusement of the other mall cops). He’s thoughtful, conscientious, a little pompous, and painfully aware of how ridiculous he can be.
James is often quite deprecatingly charming, as the cracks in his façade of self-composure show; his concerns about his weight, his struggle with hypoglycemia (which doesn’t sound funny, but is), his desire to get know the cute wig kiosk girl (Jayma Mays). There’s a lot of ridiculous over the top physical comedy–the inevitable fallback for most comedy that’s running short on ideas–but there’s a fair amount of well-observed and generally affecting character moments as well. Paul’s run-ins with the jerk pen kiosk manager (Stephen Rannazzii); his conversations with his friend’s daughter’s ex-boyfriend (Adhir Kalyan); his low key wooing of wig girl Amy. Their ride through the mall on his Segway (a running gag that amazingly works) is far more charming than it has any right to be.
Until everything is ruined, and I mean this in the most complete way possible, when a gang of thieves take over the mall.
A lot of comedies are afraid to stick to just their characters for their laughs, they aren’t comfortable unless they are putting in some sort of plot contrivance to give them an excuse for site gags and what could only very charitably be called satire. “Paul Blart” is one of those comedies, as it jettisons nearly everything it had going for it as Paul suddenly finds himself the only one free from the gang and decides to do something about it – and engage in fair number of marginally successful site gags in the process. Unfortunately, the conflict between Paul and his own flaws and potential is far more interesting than his conflict with the thieves, who are stuck in the comedy straightjacket of trying to appear menacing while being so completely ineffective they don’t notice a 300 lb. man hanging out of a vent right above them. It doesn’t help that someone’s had the idea to put all of them on bikes or skateboards or make them parkour enthusiasts, which is so cynical it almost defies belief.
“Paul Blart: Mall Cop” isn’t a bad movie, but it could have been a good one. James is much better than a lot of his contemporaries at this, eschewing over-the-top clowning for actual humanity. But it all gets thrown out the window in the second half to make room for jokes that aren’t funny. Its okay, the first half is actually quite a bit better than okay, but it never follows through on its promise. Maybe he’ll do better next time.