I'm not kidding here. I'm going to begin this post by telling you the ending of Paul Blart: Mall Cop.
Not that any of you who have seen the trailers and ads will feel I've spoiled it all that much for you. You know how it ends from what the movie looks like, a fairly formulaic little guy proves he's better than the whole lot of them comedy. You know bad guys take over the mall Paul Blart works at, so you know he saves the day in the end. You know there's a pretty girl Paul likes, so you know he wins her heart in the end. If I tell you that at the beginning of the movie we see Paul washing out of the New Jersey State Police Academy because he faints on the obstacle course, you know that at the end of the movie he will realize his dream of becoming a state trooper or something even better.
Here comes the spoiler. Paul Blart saves the day. He wins the heart of the pretty girl. He's given his chance to realize his dream when the good-hearted sergeant who is apparently the highest-ranking officer on the local police force and the chief and commissioner and mayor to boot offers him a job. Happy ending all around, right? Of course, except...
Paul turns down the sergeant's offer.
No, thanks, Paul says, with a mix of modesty and pride, my place is here. He means at the mall, working as a security guard with low pay, minimal benefits, and no pension.
The only thing he could do here even more ridiculous and in violation of all the movie has carefully if rather conventionally set up is if when the pretty girl goes to kiss him he pushes her away and says, You're too beautiful and smart and decent to fall for a loser like me. You go your way and I'll go my way back to being a miserable, lonely middle-aged schlub living with my mother.
Paul's refusing to join the West Orange police force doesn't ruin the movie. In fact, it calls attention to one of the things about it that makes Paul Blart: Mall Cop better than other little guy makes good comedies.
An understanding of what work is for most people.
The joke that drives the movie is that Paul takes his job as a security guard way too seriously. He has made it his mission to be the best damn security guard New Jersey has ever seen. But part of the movie's intelligence is that nobody cares. Not his boss, not the customers at the mall, not his friends who work there, not even his loving and otherwise admiring 10 year old daughter---she takes his job seriously because she takes him seriously, but she has no illusions about what he does and what she wants is for him to get the better job as a real cop she believes he deserves. Paul himself doesn't care, finally. He knows what he does for a living is a far cry from being a real police officer. The job is humiliating. It pays squat. There's no future in it. He took it in hopes that it would help him become a real cop, but that was ten years ago, and he's no closer to realizing his dream than he was when he started. He finds dignity for himself in pretending the job is training for the day when he finally graduates from the Academy (if he ever gets into it to begin with) and he consoles himself at the end of every shift with the knowledge that he has put in a good day's work, and the script allows him that much dignity.
But it never invests the job itself with any dignity.
It's just a job, like all the jobs in the mall, something you have to do to get by until something better comes along or until and for a long time after you get used to the idea nothing better is going to come along.
Paul's attempts to act like a real police officer and to convince other people to respond to him as if he is a real police officer are ridiculous and pathetic. But the pathos comes not from the difference between his pretensions and the reality of his life. It comes from our being able to see that Paul would be a good police officer and from our knowledge that in real life there are thousands, millions, of Pauls and Paulettes who would be good at other, better jobs than the ones they're stuck in but which they will never be able to leave except for other dead-end, soul-deadening jobs.
Most of the movie is taken up with praftalls and other kinds of goofball humor, most of it at Paul's expense. Little of it is new but all of it is very well executed and Kevin James has that gift that Jackie Gleason had---Gleason has got to be one of his heroes---of being able to carry his great bulk around as if it weighed nothing. Also, like Gleason as Ralph Kramden and the Poor Soul, James can portray both his character's knowledge of his own utter foolishness and his determination not to notice it as his only chance of surviving what his foolishness has brought crashing down around his ears. And he is an artist of motion and grace, a veritable dancer, on a Segway.
But neither James nor director Steve Carr let us mistake James the clown for Paul Blart the hapless dreamer, and at no point are we encouraged to mistake Paul's dream of his would-be self for his real self. Pretending to be something more than he is doesn't make Paul that something. He can't be that something until he is in a position where he is not pretending anymore---which is why his turning down the job offer at the end is such a shock. It's as if the filmmakers hadn't been paying attention to their own movie. Paul has to take the job or else he'll just go back to being what he was---unhappy, overworked, self-loathing, and hopeless. Why are we expected to cheer when he makes that choice?
Paul Blart: Mall Cop is, like I said, a conventional little guy makes good comedy, but in the background and at the edges we are allowed to see glimpses of another movie, a realistic movie about the lives of people who work these minimum wage jobs. If there was an American Mike Leigh, that's the movie he would make.
Mostly we see that movie through Paul's eyes. But we also get glimpses of it through the comings and goings of Amy, the pretty girl Paul has set his heart on. Amy works at a booth in the mall selling wigs and hair extensions. Part of her job is to wear samples of her wares, which, depending on her mood, makes her into a living mannequin or allows her to be a different person every day. She's too smart and too practical to let herself think that her job is training for something better, like a model or even a small businesswoman, but she can't help enjoying the feeling when she puts on one of the wigs of being a new, different, and more glamorous Amy because it's a momentary escape from the dull grind of her life at the mall.
Amy is played by Jayma Mays who looks and sounds like the kind of pretty woman who would be attracted to a guy who looks like Kevin James, a late-blooming geek goddess, sweetheart of the biology department, computer lab, or AV club who learned to judge and appreciate herself and others before she blossomed on the basis of their kindness and intelligence and senses of humor, the type of person who would be drawn to Paul because he reminds her of her father or her brothers (or because he doesn't, depending). Mays has eyes that rival Heather Graham's in bigness and roundness and she can fill them with a sadness that would make her look like a puppy in the rain if she didn't also fill them with mischief. She can also fill them with anger.
There's a moment in the movie when Amy is shutting up her stall and leaving work for the day when Mays' big eyes fill with a succession of feelings that tell us everything about how she sees her life. First, there's relief. She's done. She's free. But that's over in an instant, pushed aside by her feelings about what's waiting for her at home---other problems, other obligations that she's not in any mood or shape to deal with right now. The difference between home and work is that her problems at home have to be tackled when she's exhausted from work. This makes work a more pleasant place to be, in one way, and now for another instant she would rather not go home, she'd rather stay here at the mall, which is stupid of her---we can see her amused contempt for herself for thinking such a thought---but where else can she go? That's her life, work and home. There are thousands of places she'd rather be than either, but she can't get to any of them, and now she lets a storm of anger and resentment fill her eyes, but that's over in another instant, replaced by sadness which is replaced by---exhaustion. She is just too tired to worry or care right now. And again the instant's over. Amy forces a smile on her face, straightens her shoulders, and picks up her pace as she heads for the doors, her eyes now brightening with cheerful anticipation because what's the use of complaining or moping and besides she's thought of something nice she has to look forward to.
(We're about to learn that she drives a vintage Mustang convertible, probably inherited from the father Paul reminds her of and that she holds onto for sentimental reasons, sure, but also for the sheer fun of driving it---her commute is the highlight of her day.)
That's a lot for one moment, but Mays' eyes hold it all. And it tells us the whole story of the world of Paul and his friends at the mall. It's a moment that wouldn't be out of place in that American Mike Leigh movie we'll never see. There are several other moments like this involving other characters and other moments that would be like it if they'd been played just a bit differently, and these moments probably made me enjoy the movie more than it maybe deserves to be.
These moments change the nature of the jokes. Paul Blart: Mall Cop isn't like a Will Farrell comedy (I'm talking about the actually funny ones like Anchorman and Talladega Nights) which present their lead characters as clowns we have to learn to like. We're meant to like Paul Blart from the start and then he's made to look like a clown and that hurts.
The movie doesn't want us to feel sorry for Paul when he's at his most ridiculous as much as share his sense of humiliation and foolishness. This is what life tends to do to all of us, make us feel our own unimportance, powerlessness, foolishness, and it's Paul's great virtue that he can stand up to his feelings about having been made to look like a fool in his own eyes and in the eyes of people whose good opinion he wants and needs.
But here's the thing. Much of the plot of the movie hinges on the fact that Paul is on the brink of giving up. He is ready to surrender his dreams and sink into a life of loneliness and hopelessness. We know going into a movie like this that the little guy is going to become a hero by the end and save the day. What we don't expect is that he also has to save himself from his own despair.
Which is another reason the ending struck me as such a huge mistake. We're meant to cheer his decision! We're meant to think how great it is that Paul's choosing to stick with his friends and be content to do the job he's needed to do (as if ninja-like bad guys on skateboards take over the mall every week) when in real life, or in that Mike Leigh movie, we'd see Paul's turning down the sergeant's job offer as a failure of nerve and will.
Not to mention that a real life Amy would drop him right there in a blink of her big eyes because it would prove to her that her first impression was correct---this guy's a born loser.
So there it is. Paul Blart: Mall Cop's an enjoyable if routine comedy with more wit and intelligence about its characters and their situation and more compassion for them than the usual movie farce these days has, not ruined by its weirdly self-contradicting happy ending that---
It just dawned on me why Paul turns down the job and decides to remain a security guard.
Paul Blart: Mall Cop II.