Movie Review – Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009)
by HELEN GEIB
I caught up over the weekend with the first big hit of 2009, Paul Blart: Mall Cop. It’s not a notable or accomplished movie, but it made me smile. Mall Cop is a likable, unpretentious comedy; its easygoing good humor makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. If you’re looking for something to see with the kids or the parents, you could do a lot worse.
Paul (co-screenwriter Kevin James, star of the long-running sitcom The King of Queens) is a single father who lives with his mom and daughter. His dream is to join the state police, whose qualifying physical test he has failed eight times. In the meantime, he takes his job as a security guard at a New Jersey suburban mall much too seriously. His aspirations to serve and protect are put to the test when a charismatic, intelligent criminal and his thuggish underlings take over the mall on black Friday, ostensibly to rob the bank. Paul must rescue the hostages, including his crush, the beautiful new clerk at the hair extensions kiosk, and foil the criminal mastermind’s nefarious plan.
If that last part sounds sort of familiar, it’s because the plot is an extended parody of Die Hard. Mall Cop is like a lightweight Hot Fuzz, the very funny 2007 British film that parodied buddy cop films and various other mystery and action movie conventions. The physical and situational comedy is amusing in itself, but the movie generates many more laughs if you know the original work.
Take for example the sequence where Paul tries to escape detection by climbing into the decorative air duct of a hip clothing store. The floor bulges under his weight, giving away his position, and ultimately collapses beneath him on top of one of his pursuers, knocking her out cold. That’s funny, but view it in comparison to John McClane crawling through the skyscraper’s air ducts in Die Hard and it’s a whole lot funnier.
Mall Cop casts a kindly eye on Middle American consumer culture. The deserted mall more closely resembles a playground than a battleground. It’s a cornucopia of attractive merchandise and an architectural wonderland; whenever Paul is in a tight spot, the mall provides. There are some good visual jokes when Paul lures his targets into the stores, especially in the elaborate fight staged against the faux-tropical decor of the Rainforest Café, but the film is at its best when the camera follows him around the concourse while he wages war from atop his beloved Segway.
That ends the review proper, but I want to add a point of cultural commentary. Mall Cop is very much aware of the contemporary obsession with weight loss and narrow standard of physical beauty. Paul is a fat man who must learn to love himself if he is to fulfill his true potential. His character arc is to conquer the crippling fear that his size determines his worth.
Given this context, it troubled me that Paul’s prize is a very thin woman with cover girl looks. I have no complaints about Jayma Mays’ performance or the characterization; it is a good performance and the character is an appealing and admirable person. My concern is with the decision to cast an actress with such a slender figure as the object of the hero’s romantic love in a family film that is so directly concerned with the nexus between body weight and self-esteem. The film is the more problematic in that it consistently portrays thin women as sexually desirable (the love interest, the teenage owner of Paul’s borrowed cell phone) and overweight women as either non-sexual (Paul’s mom and teenage daughter) or the butt of derogatory sexual jokes (Paul’s morbidly obese ex-wife, the obstreperous customer who gives him a smackdown in Victoria’s Secret).