Two years ago, in a fit of idiocy, I forgot my laptop on a bench in the Time Warner Center, Midtown Manhattan's high-rise mall. Half an hour and several hundred muttered obscenities later, I rushed back to the bench, from which the computer had, of course, disappeared. The rest of the afternoon was spent in the company of one of the coolest individuals that I've ever met: a former NYPD homicide cop who'd recently given up the streets for a safer and more lucrative gig in retail security. We reviewed surveillance-camera footage together as we chatted about the family circumstances that had sparked his career change. I never figured out who took my iBook, but I left the mall with the business card of one righteous dude—and the sense that, unless you're an unattended electronic device, the Time Warner Center is safe as houses.
That experience has practically nothing to do with Paul Blart: Mall Cop (Columbia Pictures), a new comedy about the joys and perils of mall security. Poor Officer Blart (The King of Queens' Kevin James, who also co-wrote and co-produced) possesses neither the policing chops nor the macho résumé of the Time Warner Center's security chief. Blart, a roly-poly loser who failed the exit exam at the New Jersey police academy, lives with his mother (Shirley Knight) and daughter (Raini Rodriguez) and spends his days patrolling the West Orange mall on a Segway-like personal transporter. A stolen laptop would make Blart's year—most days, he's reduced to chasing down retirees who roll too fast in their wheelchairs. Blart's weight and low self-esteem have kept him from seeking out the love he longs for. ("Food fills the cracks in the heart," he counsels his daughter, slathering peanut butter on his blueberry pie. "Go away, pain.")
It's a good thing Paul Blart is such an endearing character, because the movie takes a half-hour to get going. Blart pompously mentors a rookie guard (Keir O'Donnell, channeling Heathers-era Christian Slater to good effect) and clumsily courts Amy (Jayma Mays), proprietress of the mall's "Unbeweaveable" wig kiosk. At the end of one slow shift, he kills time playing Guitar Hero at the gaming arcade—unaware that a crack team of thieves has taken over the mall and that Amy is among their hostages!
From there on in, Paul Blart:Mall Cop becomes a soft-hearted (and occasionally soft-headed) spoof of Die Hard, with Blart as the NJPD's "man on the inside," using whatever he can find around the mall to thwart the absurdly athletic baddies (some of them know parkour or martial arts; others race through the mall on skateboards). The climactic chase sequence has two or three really good sight gags, none of which I'll spoil here—this movie has few jokes to spare. As Will Arnett proved in Arrested Development, a self-serious man riding a Segway is funny in itself, even if Mall Cop milks that joke a bit dry. The best stunts take advantage of Kevin James' rubbery bulk, his startling agility, and his Weeble-like way of righting himself after bouncing off an immovable object. (It's a telling, and depressing, commentary on gender bias that the movie's only really mean fat joke takes place at a woman's expense, when Blart subdues a hefty female customer at Victoria's Secret.)
Variety calls Mall Cop "almost shockingly amateurish" (and notes, correctly, that the plot continuity and coherence are as slipshod as Paul Blart's policing skills), but I submit that the movie's homegrown, America's Funniest Home Videos quality is one of its strengths. Sure, this is the kind of cheapo lark that gets dumped on the market in January, when nobody's expecting much. But as cheapo larks go, it's a winningly unassuming one: no stars, no big action set pieces. Just a fat guy, a near-empty mall, and a lot of really ridiculous ideas.