In an age where almost every film ever made is at your fingertips, it can be difficult to choose what to watch on a given night. I love holidays because holiday-specific movies can drastically cut down that annoying choosing process. On Valentine’s Day, I watch a romantic comedy like “When Harry Met Sally.” On Christmas, I watch “Elf” or one of many other great Christmas movies. Thanksgiving is really the best holiday for narrowing down the choice of movies because there’s only one great one: “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”
However, when you’ve watched the same film over and over again for the past five or six years, you might want to branch out and find something else. And, unfortunately, since I’m with my family for our Thanksgiving movie, I don’t think watching the weird, low-budget horror film “ThanksKilling” would be particularly appropriate. So it seems there’s only one choice for Thanksgiving family movie night. A much-maligned family comedy takes place around the Thanksgiving holiday, one that I believe actually belongs in the relatively small pantheon of Thanksgiving movies: “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.”
“Paul Blart: Mall Cop” is a strange movie. Not because any of the singular choices it makes are particularly unique or daring, but because the combination of all these choices makes for a bizarre, ridiculous experience. It’s a family-friendly version of “Die Hard,” where a member of law enforcement (sort of) must protect an entire mall from a band of thieves on Black Friday. It’s a simple premise that allows the film to be a lot of different things. It can be an exciting action-comedy with fun set pieces like “The Blues Brothers.” It can have a bit of romance like other great action-adventure movies. It can even do silly humor that might be more of a fit for a sitcom like Kevin James’s “King of Queens.”
What makes “Paul Blart” work is its sincerity, particularly with regard to its title character. While there are some jokes here and there about Paul’s (Kevin James, “Grown Ups”) weight or his social awkwardness, the film never feels like it’s making fun of him. It always feels like the movie, and subsequently the audience, is on his side. The movie wants Paul to succeed, and that’s what makes him such a lovable character.
The film takes the time to properly flesh out Paul as well, something you don’t often see in many broad, mainstream comedies. Paul has dreams of becoming a police officer, and he even gets a tragic backstory: He is trying to get back into the dating game after the recent passing of his wife. Each of these desires guides Paul’s decisions throughout the film and gives the character some growth over the course of the story.
The film’s heart and well-roundedness is something that the atrocious sequel — which I reluctantly saw because a showing of “Mad Max: Fury Road” was sold out — sorely lacks. Not only does the sequel basically repeat the same jokes and plot as the original on a larger scale, but the jokes don’t work as well because they feel more mean-spirited. The sequel seems to misunderstand what works about its predecessor — that Paul is supposed to be the hero, not the punchline.
What makes the original work as a Thanksgiving movie isn’t just that it takes place during the holiday. It’s also because “Paul Blart” works as a movie for the whole family. I saw it for the first time at 8 years old and I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. I have obviously seen many funnier comedies since, but I still enjoy this movie a great deal as a 20-year-old. My parents also enjoy the more-adult humor in “Paul Blart” quite a bit — in the same way that “Spongebob Squarepants” appeals to kids and adults alike. Even my grandmother would watch the movie if she saw it on TV.
Given the broad nature of its humor, everyone is likely to find something to laugh at. Whether it’s Paul playing Rockband while the mall that he is supposed to be protecting has been thrown into a panic behind him, Paul accidentally getting drunk at an after-work happy hour with his coworkers or Paul fixing his “wounds” with a Hello Kitty band-aid, the movie has some genuinely funny gags that still work even if you’ve seen them a few times before.
“Paul Blart: Mall Cop” rides a very fine line between wholesome family film and weird, adult comedy, but it makes the combination work better than most other films that try to ride that same line. This blend allows everybody, from 8-year-olds to 80-year-olds, to watch the film while enjoying each other’s company. Based on the premise, “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” may seem like an odd film to watch with your family over Thanksgiving, but its broad appeal among age groups actually makes it a perfect movie to watch with whomever you spend the holiday with.
Daily Arts Writer Mitchel Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.