Written by star Kevin James and “King of Queens” writer Nick Bakay, the family-friendly (especially if that family is mostly boys) story follows Paul Blart (James), an overweight, hypoglycemic police academy flunkie now working as a mall cop at a New Jersey shopping center. Blart’s life has turned out NOTHING like he’d hoped or expected; aside from failing to make the police force, his wife—an illegal immigrant—ditched him and their chubby tween daughter, Maya (Raini Rodriguez) as soon as she gained citizenship… he and Maya live with his mother… he has no real friends… his dating life is non-existent… and his entire life revolves around an almost obsessive determination to be a dutiful security guard “protecting the people” of his mall.
But all that changes one fateful day… when the mall is taken over by a team of skateboarding, bike-riding burglars intent on robbing the local bank and executing a massive credit card scam before escaping to the Cayman Islands. Unfortunately, Blart—who has succumbed to a brief moment of weakness and decided to play video games while on duty—isn’t around when the burglars evacuate the mall (he has locked himself in the video arcade), so he’s suddenly the only survivor free in the mall. Thus, it’s up to him to stop the bad guys and rescue the hostages… which include his crush, Amy (the ridiculously adorable Jayma Mays), and—eventually—his daughter Maya.
What follows is a predictable, paint-by-numbers spoof of ‘80’s action movies… mostly “Die Hard,” but with a bit of “Rambo,” “First Blood,” “Heathers,” and others thrown in for good measure. It also has a healthy dose of the robbers’ extreme sports stunts (why these guys are extreme sportsmen is beyond me… they literally skateboard and bike through the entire mall) and Kevin James’ chubby-guy schtick (watching James try to sneak through the mall like a commando, goofy fight scenes, etc.)… which, frankly, serves as a nice reminder that watching fat guys do physical comedy is—no matter how much you wanna resist or deny it—ALWAYS funny.
I’m not even going to lay out the rest of the plot, because—to be honest—it’s so paint-by-numbers that you can see the entire movie simply by closing your eyes.
But here’s the thing…
I found myself genuinely liking it.
As I said to my wife afterwards… “it’s not all that funny… and a lot of it is pretty stupid (i.e., a scene where James is trapped in an aluminum air-conditioning duct and the bad guys find him because his grumbling stomach echoes through the duct)… but everything about it is just so LIKEABLE.”
Basically, the movie “succeeds” on three main points:
POINT #1: You can’t help but like Kevin James and Jayma Mays. James is a great at earning sympathy points for being the schlubby nice guy who never gets a break. And Jayma Mays does “adorable” better than anyone out there. (Seriously. If you wrote a movie and just named a character “Adorable,” she would automatically get the role. They wouldn’t even audition anyone else.)
POINT #2 (and this is the biggie): While the script never takes itself too seriously, its treatment of the main character, Paul Blart, is earnest. The first third of the movie is spent setting up Paul Blart’s desperate wants… and the strong emotional drives behind them.
First, we see how badly this man wants to be a protector of citizens. The film opens with Blart racing to finish his final police academy exam… and he’s clearly the start student, acing every test, until—inches from the finish line—he passes out from hypoglycemia. We then see him in his fallback job as a security officer, where he takes his job so seriously he gives wheelchaired shoppers tickets for “reckless driving,” talks in police lingo over his walkie-talkie, and attempts to make citizens arrest on two women bickering over a bra in Victoria’s Secret. It’s silly, sure… but it does a great job of illustrating, in visual and dramatic ways, just how much this guy believes in himself and what he’s doing.
Secondly, we see how desperately Blart longs to find a new wife. His love for Maya and his mom is palpable… and he clearly has a lot more love to give, but no one to share it with. (He even bears no hard feelings to the ex-wife who used and left him.) Even Maya and his mother want him to find someone, making us hurt for him in a superbly relatable way.
(Also, James never mugs or lets his performance talk down to the audience, which is nice—and helps him win all those sympathy points. You genuinely feel for him.)
(Another “also” – at one point, there’s a line which I LOVE… not because it’s a brilliant or beautiful line, but because it “works” so perfectly. Blart’s daughter, Maya, reminds him that he once said to her: “If I don’t have a girlfriend by November, I’ll let you sign me up for PerfectMatch.com.” (This line reminds me of a similar line from “The Wedding Singer,” when Robbie—the Adam Sandler character—is giving music lessons to Rosie—an old woman—and she says, “If I can learn to sing this song perfectly for my anniversary, my husband will know how much I still love him.”
I love these lines because they perfectly set up everything their stories require to work. They give characters specific and tangible wants: Blart wants a girlfriend; Rosie wants to sing the song. They root these tangible wants in genuine emotional motivation: Blart wants to find love, Rosie wants to let her husband know how much she still cares. They lay out what these characters need to do in order accomplish those wants: begin dating, and learn to sing. They give characters’ wants real stakes: if he fails Blart will have to do sign up for an online dating service (which he clearly doesn’t want to do), and Rosie’s husband won’t know how much she cares. And lastly, they give the characters real deadlines: November, and Rosie’s anniversary.
So in each of these sentences, an entire story is set in motion. The stories may not be as weighty as, say, “Slumdog Millionaire” or “Revolutionary Road,” but so what? Simple sentences like these give us all the info we need to relate to and root for the characters.)
Ultimately, because the storytellers don’t mock or belittle Blart—even though he’s the movie’s comedic engine—he’s relatable enough that we care about and invest in his mission (or, at the very least, we understand and relate to it). And because we care, we’re willing to forgive other missteps.
POINT #3: Any movie’s pretty good if the director shamelessly blasts old Survivor songs throughout… and it’s hard not to like something with “The Search is Over” cranked through a great sound system. (I think “High on You” was a bigger hit, but let’s be honest… “The Search is Over” just SAYS so much more.) And when the soundtrack is backed up with REO Speedwagon, Bon Jovi, and KISS… DONE. Hand this thing a “Best Picture” Oscar and let’s call it a day.
So… today’s takeaway screenwriting lesson is—what? I think, if anything, it’s that much of our battle as storytellers is simply
getting audiences to care about and invest in our characters. If we can accomplish that successfully, they’ll stick with us through almost anything.
Having said that… “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” is certainly no cinematic masterpiece. And between my wife and most of the critics out there (Rotten Tomatoes is giving it a sad 30% rating right now), I’m clearly in the minority. Oh well. It’s still got Jayma Mays, and maybe that’s enough for me.
PAUL BLART: MALL COP TRAILER
SURVIVOR’S “THE SEARCH IS OVER” VIDEO