January 16, 2009 / 5:28 AM / 10 years ago

Like its sad-sack hero, "Mall Cop" an underachiever

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Kevin James co-wrote, co-produced and stars in “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.” So you wonder why he struggles for so much of the movie to find his comic rhythm.

Actor/comedian Kevin James arrives at the Tiger Jam VIII benefit concert at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, May 21, 2005. REUTERS/Ethan Miller

Even though he created the character of a shopping mall security guard with an insecurity complex as large as his girth, the funny business eludes him until far too late in the movie. Solid TV spots have created enough awareness for this comedy, which opens January 16, to gain some traction during its opening weekend. Midlevel business could follow for the Sony Pictures release.

James clearly wants to portray a comic character everyone underestimates. A security guard’s job brings little authority and even less respect from mall patrons, fellow employees and, worst of all, women. His hypoglycemia causes him to black out on short notice. His physical size hampers his maneuverability. Plus he has a bad habit of doing and saying the wrong thing in key situations.

Great comics from Jerry Lewis to Peter Sellers have turned pathetic into comedic. But James never seems to able to get beyond pathetic. His Paul Blart is too aware of his failings, and when a character spends half a movie feeling story for himself, an audience needn’t bother.

Every gag situation is a setup for failure. What needs to happen, in light of what the second half will require, is for his rent-a-cop to sometimes get the better of a snide fellow employee like Stephen Rannazzisi or find an ingenuous way to impress the saleswoman, Jayma Mays, on whom he has a crush.

The movie takes 40 minutes to get to the point: One holiday eve, a group of super-athletic criminals takes over the mall and a half-dozen hostages. All that stands between them and a huge heist, as a SWAT team stands helplessly outside, is — you guessed it — Paul Blart.

Despite his worst efforts, Paul manages to disable a couple of villains. Then he seems to realize he’s in a guerrilla war on his home turf, where he has the advantage of surprise. Suddenly, he morphs into Rambo. His battle with this group of baddies, for which the filmmakers have cleverly cast stars from the world of extreme sports, produces mildly funny sequences. Given the possibility of warfare in a huge mall, though, these could have been much funnier.

Director Steve Carr makes certain there is little lag time in the story James wrote with Nick Bakay. Things are pretty busy, sometimes frantically so, even when nothing much is happening. The stunt work is fine, but one does tire of seeing James tooling around the mall on a personal transporter with huge tires.

Keir O’Donnell has a good role as a surprise villain and makes the most of it. Raini Rodriguez has her moments as Paul’s teenage daughter. Shirley Knight, of all people, turns up as Paul’s concerned mom and does about all she can with the thin role, as does Bobby Cannavale as the egotistic SWAT team leader.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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