When I sat down in the theater for a pre-screening of "Paul Blart Mall Cop" (from Columbia Pictures, opens Jan. 16, 2009) I was mentally preparing for a slapstick comedy, which is what the trailers advertise...you know, the sort of flick that always made me cringe and wonder whether I could come down with a slight case of bubonic plague rather than give in to my pre-teen son's begging campaign to be taken to the movies.
Plus, it's set in New Jersey, which right away makes it ripe to be the butt of all sorts of jokes. ("You're from Jersey? What exit?") And to add insult to injury, the movie wasn't even shot in New Jersey. It was actually filmed in Massachusetts, at the Burlington Mall in Burlington, and the South Shore Plaza in Braintree.
Instead of the anticipated dreadful movie, however, I found a film that is misrepresented by the trailers. The previews make it look goofy, but in fact, it works on a number of different levels. Good guys become bad guys, bad guys become good guys, and there is a reason for every scene in the movie. What may look at first like gratuitous physical comedy has a point, and the viewer gets the reference later on. The moviemakers throw in a takeoff on "Die Hard," with some rocking scenes of talented robbers who show off their abilities with bikes and skateboards. These bad guys take hostages and try to rob the bank in the mall, so they're not supposed to be sympathetic characters, but they look totally cool being evil.
Kevin James, the star of the TV show the "King of Queens," shows that he has depth and the ability to really act - not just look silly on a runaway Segway, which is his answer to the skateboarding stunts. James plays the movie's title character - your everyday underachieving, overweight loser - but one with a highly developed sense of right and wrong.
He lives with his mother and his daughter, his wife having run off once she shed her illegal status and obtained her green card. Mom and daughter are both worried about him, and they try to help him get a girlfriend by setting up a profile on an Internet dating service. (It's worth noting that the young actress Raini Rodriguez gives a terrific performance as the daughter.)
Alas, neither the dating service nor Paul's desire to become a New Jersey state police officer bring the desired results. The latter fails because of his hypoglycemia, which causes him to pass out just before he makes it to the finish line - a metaphor for his life. This failure -- his eighth washout for the troopers' academy -- his mother soothes with peanut butter and pie.
Yet he bravely carries on, hopping on his Segway to head out to the mall on Black Friday, where he drives his supervisor crazy with his dedication to keeping the shopping center secure. "Why can't you just punch in, shut up, and punch out, like the rest of us?" the supervisor wants to know.
But that's not the way Paul is made. His commitment to doing his job properly is what makes the movie more than just a slapstick routine. His first challenge is training a new security guard, who admits that he took the job because he doesn't have a GED, and mall security was the only employment he could find.
This is the point at which every security director's heart sinks. They KNOW this guy. They've hired him a dozen times before because no one else would work for the pay the company offers. They know Paul Blart, too. In the movie, he instructs his trainee how to take a stance and mime drawing a gun. In real life, he's the one who winds up getting the company mixed up in a use-of-force lawsuit.
Robert Woerner, CPP, a retired NYPD Crime Prevention unit lieutenant who currently works as a security consultant, points out that some mall security are wanna-be cops. "Those who have this feeling may be overzealous in carrying out their duties," he says. "But additional training and monitoring should dissuade most of this behavior."