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Review: 'Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2' is minutely less pathetic than the first

A series that has become an easy punching bag for critics — and not undeservingly —could be OK, maybe. If it tried, at all.

‘Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2’
Director:
Andy Fickman
Stars: Kevin James, Raini Rodriguez
Rating: PG
1 Globe (out of 5)

This might sound like sacrilege, considering the name has become shorthand for lowest common denominator entertainment — the “monkey tennis” of the new age — but here goes: Paul Blart is not a terrible idea for a character. He can even be well-played by Kevin James, a genuinely nice-seeming guy who seems to genuinely have talent. At heart Blart’s an old comic type: the person who puts on airs but can’t keep them up for too long. In “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2,” as in 2009’s shock monster hit “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” there are pratfalls and accidents involving vehicles and also fat jokes — lots and lots of fat jokes, many likely written by James himself. But there are tinier moments where we see a guy who just can’t help himself from being a more modest, and probably better person, than the version he wishes to project to the world.

The problem is — OK, there are a lot of problems. One of them is that there are only about three jokes, repeated ad nauseum, and none are too funny to begin with. They're also the same jokes from the first. The sequel relocates things to Vegas, where Blart will attend a rent-a-cop convention and foil an "Ocean's Eleven"-style heist, all while never straying far into Sin City, of course. But the relcoation doesn't change things up.One typical bit begins with airs-putting-on, and ends with a little, or big, humiliation. At one point Blart does a truly lovely and dexterous little dance with a Segway, just to show off. And then Blart gets hit by a car. This, or something just like it, happens a lot. In fact, about a third of the film is variations on Blart acting smooth then falling down or getting hit or fighting a fancy bird.

Another, even more significant problem is that Blart is both someone we’re supposed to laugh at — again, there are a lot of fat jokes — and also feel bad for, but not at the same time. It goes back and forth. It’s not that Blart needs to be a monster on the order of David Brent. James subscribes to the Sylvester Stallone school of oppressing his already put-down protagonist to the point where mere inadequacy leads to a sense of victimization. Whenever Blart screws up it’s a joke; whenever someone points out he screwed up it’s sad. A lot of characters exist solely to go up to him and, rather rudely, point out what a loser he is, at which point Blart makes a sad face against sad music. At this point our blood is supposed to boil, making us hunger for some kind of revenge, even if it’s in the form of him, in the second film as in the first, becoming the unlikely, perhaps inexplicable (albeit still bumbling) hero who thwarts some outlandish heist.

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Of course, James — or at least the movie star, not TV, version of James — is not a critical darling. It’s not hard to read bits as digs against naysayers. And here’s the biggest problem with the “Paul Blart” franchise (and it’s technically, now, a franchise): they aren’t trying. One could even suspect that’s part of the plan: to aim so low that it feeds into the filmmakers’ sense of inadequacy and persecution. It’s as though it needs the hate of haters to live. That’s a joke, kind of, but “Paul Blart 2” is almost Guinness-level in terms of not trying. It's common for comedies to have little visual style, but director Andy Fickman can barely put together a sequence. A set piece where Blart attacks a perpetrator while hiding inside a suitcase and winds up almost drowning makes no visual or conceptual sense from start to finish.Even the title is lazy. The name of the first had a symmetrical pleasure: two syllables, a colon, two syllables. The sequel repeats that then throws the balance and flow off by adding a numeral. Even “Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo” — a title whose second half is redundant — stepped up its game with the sequel title “European Gigolo.” “Paul Blart” can’t even ascend the molehill of a Rob Schneider series.

For the record it’s slightly better than the first, whose first half is so mopey it almost plays like a drama. This one throws in jokes throughout — not good jokes, but jokes, at least. James seems to be genuinely trying to play Blart from a physical standpoint, or even, when that fails, just finding weird, sometimes half-almost-inspired mouth noses. He’s almost someone who could make a film work by his charma lone. For the most part, though, “2” keeps hitting the repeat button, despite having six entire years to come up with new material. It’s too much time for so little to show. If this were the 1930s Mickey Rooney would have cranked out 13 of these suckers in that time.

Rooney’s Andy Hardy movies were likely treated by critics of that day much like the “Blart” films, but they age well. Perhaps the “Paul Blart” saga will too, although it won’t be because of the jokes. They’ll likely be of best use as fascinating time capsules — undemanding product for an era when a silly culture war raged, leading a portion of America to turn a tossed-off ditty about a rent-a-cop even its makers didn’t seem to think was special into a freak monster hit, almost as though out of spite against perceived cultural elites who themselves just wanted to have a decent laugh too.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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