The biggest crime of all in “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” is not the bank heist that goes down at a New Jersey mall on Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year. Rather, it’s the egregious way in which Kevin James’ innate likability goes to waste.
The “King of Queens” star showed he could play an underdog with some sweetness and depth as a lovesick accountant in the 2005 romantic comedy “Hitch” — and he practically stole the movie away from Will Smith. This time, he plays yet another misfit, but one who’s so two-dimensional, needy (and frankly annoying) that it’s difficult to root for him.
Trouble is, James himself created the character: “I just love this guy,” he says in the film’s production notes. He’ll probably be one of the precious few who do.
James’ Paul Blart is a portly pushover who tries hard to be the tough guy as a shopping center security guard. Hypoglycemic and woefully out of shape, he’s failed the New Jersey state trooper exam eight times; nevertheless, he squeezes into his polyester uniform and takes his job as seriously as if he were out keeping the highways safe from speeders and drunk drivers. (His vehicle, by the way, is a Segway, which is repeatedly played for laughs but isn’t particularly amusing the first time.)
In an anemic take off on “Die Hard,” Paul gets his chance to prove himself when a bunch of skateboarding, bike-riding, X-Games refugees infiltrate the mall with plans to rob the bank, taking a few hostages in the process. One of them is Amy (Jayma Mays), the wide-eyed salesgirl at the hair extension kiosk, for whom Paul has the geeky hots. He awkwardly tries to woo her with boring trivia tidbits, which is meant to be endearing; instead it’s yet another conceit that quickly grows wearisome in the script from James and his longtime writing partner, Nick Bakay.
Paul bumbles his way around and manages to thwart the bad guys, one by one, with his in-depth knowledge of the shopping center’s intricacies as well as a borrowed pink, sparkly cell phone that allows him to connect with cops on the outside. Their leader is the sniveling Veck (Keir O’Donnell, who played tortured artist Todd in “Wedding Crashers”), who took a job as a security guard trainee under Paul’s tutelage to learn the way the mall works.
This being a Happy Madison Production — Adam Sandler is James’ friend and domestic partner from “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry” — there are, of course, plenty of obligatory adolescent sight gags to go along with the man-child hero fantasies, all of them flatly staged and observed by director Steve Carr (“Dr. Dolittle 2,” “Daddy Day Care”).
Surprisingly, though, given our would-be hero’s girth and the physical humor that goes along with it, “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” has a soft spot for fat people. In an early dinner-table scene with his mother and young daughter, the single dad smears peanut butter on top of a slice of blueberry pie mere moments after finishing his meal. “Go away, pain,” he says quietly to himself as he prepares to savor his favorite comfort food.
It’s a rare moment of believable humanity. You couldn’t buy another one here if you tried.