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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Kevin James is a funny guy. Television critics didn't always look fondly upon his show, "The King of Queens," but it reliably cracked me up the handful of times I saw it. His stand-up special on Comedy Central, "Sweat the Small Stuff," proved him to be an ace observational comic; the bit about the proper rhythm for providing phone numbers is classic. Given that he has made me laugh in the past, I have no idea why I was so surprised to enjoy James' debut as a big screen leading man, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, except that the premise sounded so…silly.

Well, it is. Silly may even be an understatement. On the surface, the film looks exactly like the kind of disposable, low-rent comedy the studios regularly throw into the January dumping grounds. Yet while I was watching it, the realization slowly crept in that I was being won over. Nobody is going to win any Oscars off this thing, but for what it is - an intentionally ridiculous, lightweight piece of entertainment - Paul Blart is fun. And all the credit for that goes to Kevin James.

The title may have tipped you off to the subject matter. James is Paul Blart, a police academy reject who now patrols a suburban New Jersey shopping mall on his Segway. He does his job with uncommon determination and seriousness. Some people make fun of him for that, but what do they know? Working hard is a refuge for the single father who's trying to raise a pre-teen daughter while living at home with his mother.

Blart gets a chance to be the defender he's always wanted to be when thieves break in on Black Friday, planning to swipe all the credit card codes from the registers. With tracking devices and explosives rigged to all the doors, no outside police or SWAT team members can access the mall. It's up to Blart to fight the crooks from the inside. And since they are not only messing with his mall but also holding hostage the hair extension salesgirl (Jayma Mays) he's sweet on, Blart has a good reason to prevail at all costs.

There are really two levels to Paul Blart: Mall Cop. One is the obvious broad comedy level. The security officer uses all the merchandise accessible to him in the mall to foil the villains. Sporting goods, toys, and even the helium tank at the balloon stand become unofficial weapons in Blart's hands. This kind of stuff can be hit or miss, although I'd say that I laughed at about half of it. Not a bad ratio.

The other level is the human level, and that makes me recommend the picture. Given the general nature of big screen comedies these days, you could reasonably expect Paul Blart: Mall Cop to be a boundary-pushing PG-13 movie about a smartass (or, just as likely, a dumbass) security guard wisecracking his way through the mall, peering over the dressing room doors at Victoria's Secret, and delivering a comic smackdown to punk kids trying to shoplift. Thankfully, this is not that movie. Instead, Paul Blart is a fundamentally decent guy. He takes the responsibility of his job seriously. He tries to do what is right. He operates with honesty, integrity, and morality. And when the chips are down, those qualities come in very handy.

Kevin James knows how to be funny, but he also knows how to turn his character into a big teddy bear. Watching the film, I found myself warming up to Paul Blart. He's so kind and upright that I began rooting for him, even as his adventure became more and more ludicrous. Sure, comic things happen to him. He falls over, gets winded because of his weight, and so on. And yes, sometimes his insistence on handling things by the book leads to humorous complications. That's just part of his appeal. Edgy comedy is all fine and dandy, but it felt really refreshing to see a movie about a man who is trying to be the best human being he can. A lot of comedians would want us to laugh at Paul Blart; James wants us to empathize with him. And I did.

So let me make this clear, just in case I haven't already: Paul Blart: Mall Cop is no masterpiece. It's the kind of picture you see when you want an hour and a half of pure frivolity. I was in the mood for frivolity on the day I went, and thanks to Kevin James' earnest portrayal of an earnest guy, I was won over by the film's goofy charms.

( out of four)

Paul Blart: Mall Cop is rated PG for some violence, mild crude and suggestive humor, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.

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