If you look just underneath almost every good joke you will find a deep reservoir of fear and uncertainty. This is true when we look at the various comedy subgenres: farces are powered by our apprehension at the idea that we might be made to look like a fool; slapstick derives it's power from the relief we feel when it's someone other than us that falls down and embarrasses themselves; and of course gallows humor (and most absurdist humor) tries to transmute our most morbid worries into levity. It's also true when we look at the various comedic archetypes, whether that's the nerdy Woody Allen-ish nebbish, or the ignorant Will Ferrell-ish buffoon, or the pathetic Seth Rogen-ish manchild. What unites all of those archetypes is that they embody Rodney Dangerfield's catchphrase "I don't get no respect" - or at least they would in a completely just world.
A good comedian is basically an alchemist: they take our most unpleasant emotions and transmutes them into something much more pleasant. But bad comedians do the opposite - they reinforce our worst fears. When bad open mic stand ups try to push the envelope with "ironic" bits about racism or sexism they just reaffirm the audience's belief that the world is a hateful place. There are a lot of gross out comedies which go too far, and when they do so they are definitely gross but they are hardly comedic. And silly little trifles like Paul Blart: Mall Cop which are intended to calm people's social and economic fears can actually end up reinforcing them.
In case you missed this movie when it came out in 2009, Paul Blart is a mall cop, and he is basically a perfect storm of middle American neuroses. He wants to be a real police officer, but he can't pass the physical exam, so he's stuck at a job that simulates the career he really wants but for less money; his underemployment taps into our economic fears about the disappearance of the middle class. (The fact that he works in a mall doubles down on that anxiety, since malls across the country are closing down as they fail to keep up with online shopping.) He's overweight, and his extra bulk is keeping him from finding the romantic partner he feels like he deserves; that taps directly into our growing anxiety about the obesity epidemic. (As well as tapping into existential fears of dying alone.) Then on top of those modern nightmares you have your classic neuroses - Blart is a clumsy man who is constantly falling down and he has a habit of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to the girl he really loves. All in all, he's a collection of all the ways that a modern men might feel emasculated as they go from their sad homes to their sad jobs to their sad graves.
If this movie were funny it would address and then neutralize all those issues. It's classic "everyday schlub has to become a hero and save a bunch of people from criminals" plot is certainly trying to reassure it's audience that they matter in the grand scheme of things, and that they can have hope that one day they will be able to hold their heads high. Of course it ends up with Blart winning the respect of the real cops and getting the girl because we all want to live in a world where kind hearted people get their just rewards. (And we don't even require that our heroes be all that kind hearted - Blart has a bad habit of stalking his love interest Amy as she works at her job at a weave-selling kiosk in the mall. I get that Blart is a nice guy who means well, and I get why Amy can forgive him for his trespasses after he saves the day, but I wish that this movie understood that stalking is creepy even if it is done on a Segway.)
Unfortunately, Paul Blart: Mall Cop is not particularly funny, outside of a few pratfalls that are well executed by Kevin James, who might look oafish but is actually rather graceful. It doesn't really have characters or jokes or anything that you would expect a comedy to have - and thus Blart's constant stream of humiliations remains oppressive, rather than being enjoyable.
I can honestly say that this movie created a lot of empathy in me. When I saw Blart struggle with loneliness, I, too, thought about my eternal bachelorhood. When I saw Blart eat a mountain of pie as a coping mechanism after a particularly painful rejection I, too, thought about my unfortunate habit of comfort eating. As Blart tried his best to be a good worker even though his job was obviously beneath him, I, too, wondered whether my employment choices were allowing me to fulfill my potential. All of that would be great if this was a drama - if it was trying to be Marty, a best picture winner from the 50's that focused on a middle aged butcher's quest for love. That movie was about a man who looked at his humdrum day-to-day life and wondered "is this it?" and who got the answer: "No." Over the course of 90 minutes Marty learned how to get more out of his time on earth, and he moved from justified dissatisfaction towards real contentment, and as he did so the audience got a real boost of optimism that they might be able to undertake a similar journey themselves someday.
Paul Blart: Mall Cop is not trying to be a drama like Marty. (You might have noticed it did not win best picture.) No, Paul Blart: Mall Cop is trying to be a comedy, and thus to succeed it has to create catharsis as well as empathy, a goal which it definitely does not meet. When Blart stood up to the terrorists who were taking hostages in his mall I did not look at him and think "I could be a hero, too!", nor did I laugh - I just thought "enh, we're almost halfway through, it's about time the real plot started." When the end rolled around and Blart used his newfound status as a hero to get the girl I did not think "someday that will be me!" or "oh man, that's a good gag" - I thought "yeah, I'm ready for this to wrap up." His trials felt real and relateable, but his rewards felt like Hollywood nonsense, and since I don't live in a Hollywood blockbuster I didn't really buy into the idea that everything will eventually all work out. And that's a problem for a comedy, because those are supposed to end well.
Paul Blart is definitely a comic character very much in the Rodney Dangerfield mold – he’s a guy who doesn’t get any respect. In theory, that’s fine – there are a lot of comedies that take the idea that a guy gets no respect from his wife, his mom, his friends or the whole world and then spin that into comic gold. However, to do so they provide a punchline that is as funny as the set-up is miserable. They have to, because if they don’t then they re-affirm our most basic fears rather than relieve them. Paul Blart: Mall Cop’s biggest problem is that it’s script doesn’t have any punchlines that are as funny as Paul Blart’s life is tragic, and as such, it ends up summoning despairs that it can’t dispel. Watching this film you’ll realize that we might be observing the death of the middle class; that we might be at the End of Men; that the idea that an everyday overweight schlub might find true love is bullshit. What you won’t realize is that you’re supposed to laugh at all of those traumas.
Winner: The Cat