Are fat jokes okay to laugh at if it's a fat guy himself who's soliciting our amusement? I don't know: Watching Kevin James flop, skid and hoover up food in "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," I kept thinking of John Candy and Chris Farley, two other overweight comedians whose obesity contributed to their early deaths — Candy's at 43, Farley's at 33 (of a drug overdose, but his weight was already a problem). There's something disturbing about it. James has an appealing sweetness, but he lacks Candy's physical grace and Farley's comic mania. As a performer he's something of a lump, a sort of jolly sad-sack who always seems to be looking for a hug. Those who find this funny may like the movie; those who don't may wish the movie (which James co-wrote) were funnier.
James' character, Paul Blart, is a security guard at a vast New Jersey mall. His dream is to become a state trooper, but he can't pass the training course — not because he's so fat, the movie would like us to believe, but because he's hypoglycemic: without a periodic sugar fix, he tends to pass out. So, here he is at the mall. His fellow guards are clock-punching sluggards, but Paul is totally dedicated, making the rounds of the mall's brand-name shops on his silly Segway transport cart as if he were a general surveying the morale of his troops.
Outside of work, he's a lonely guy. "People tend to write me off," he says. (Where do we sign? I wondered.) Abandoned by his immigrant wife, who only wanted him for a green card, Paul lives dumpily with his mother (Shirley Knight) and his teenage daughter, Maya (Raini Rodriguez). Mom lets him inhale all the pie he wants (he slathers it with peanut butter first, yum), and Maya wishes he could find a nice girlfriend. In fact, Paul is smitten with a pretty blonde named Amy (Jayma Mays), who runs a sort of wig kiosk at the mall. Amy is super-cute and, as seems the case with anyone who stands next to Paul, rather petite. In the real world, the chances of her reciprocating Paul's romantic interest would be somewhere in the vicinity of nonexistent. The moment we see her flash a fond smile at him, though, we know the movie has decided otherwise.
One night, while Paul is patrolling some far acre of the mall, the place is invaded by a gang of high-tech thieves. They have earpiece communications and they leave motion sensors outside every entrance. (All this for a mall job?) And along with majoring in larceny, they also seem to have minored in Broadway musicals — how else to explain all their leaping through the air and somersaulting off of high galleries? They also have a hot line in skateboard moves. (And what more convenient place to show those off than amid the long, sweeping arcades of a mall?) The gang's leader is a young snot named Veck (Keir O'Donnell). His plan is to steal all of the mall's credit-card-machine codes, lam out on a waiting private plane to the Cayman Islands and ... well, I'm not sure what, actually. This plan made no sense to me, especially after state cops and SWAT teams started piling up outside the mall. Did Veck think he could fly out of the country without attracting the attention of air-traffic controllers? Did he think the Caymans, a high-profile financial center, would be a good place to set up a major financial swindle? Did he not realize the islands are a British territory, and would swiftly extradite his busted butt back to the States at first request? But this is already more deep thought than such a silly plot concoction merits.
The short version: Both Amy and Maya get taken hostage, and Paul has to rescue them. To do so, he must turn various features of the mall against the thieves. Some of this — like a bob-and-weave showdown in a fake tropical-garden area — is entertaining. (James expends a lot of good-natured energy in trying to make it so.) Mostly, though, Paul's various thief-baiting stratagems retain the moist impressions of a scriptwriters' spitballing session.
I know this is January, the month where dreadful movies go to die, and I know we have to take what we can get. But this? Spring has rarely seemed so far away.
Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "My Bloody Valentine 3-D," also new in theaters this week.
Don't miss Kurt Loder's reviews of "Che" and "My Bloody Valentine 3-D," also new in theaters this week.
For breaking news, celebrity columns, humor and more — updated around the clock — visit MTVMoviesBlog.com.
‘Dark Knight’ sweeps People’s Choice Awards
You could party with a rock star on New Year’s Eve
‘My Bloody Valentine 3-D’: Wet One, By Kurt Loder
‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’: Wasted Space, By Kurt Loder