Film Reviews: Wednesday, January 21, 2009
This is not how you tail a suspect: Kevin James in Paul Blart: Mall Cop.
Starring Jamal Woolard and Derek Luke. Directed by George Tillman Jr. Written by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker. Rated R.

Paul Blart: Mall Cop
Starring Kevin James. Directed by Steve Carr. Written by Kevin James and Nick Bakay. Rated PG.
Playing the Heavy

Fat guys star in two of last week’s box-office hits. We have the skinny.


Fat men sometimes serve as tragic figures in movies. Notorious is a tragedy, but the main character’s fatness isn’t what marks him for doom but rather what helps make him an unlikely star before his early death. It’s based on the life of Christopher Wallace — a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G. — the rap star who was gunned down in 1997. Smartly, the DELETE doesn’t delve into the tangled question of the identity of Biggie Smalls’ killer. Legal considerations alone probably prevent the movie from going there.
The film serves as an official biography — both Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace, and his impresario, Sean Combs, are listed as executive producers — so it’s not surprising that it glosses over Biggie’s life as a drug dealer and his history of violence against women. Showing this stuff at all does represent some unusual honesty — at one point, we see Christopher selling crack to a pregnant woman. Even so, we’re supposed to take these as minor character flaws in the hero when they cry out for fuller and less varnished treatment. The film ends with a watery voiceover assertion by Voletta (played by Angela Bassett) that her son was ready to finally become a man when he was killed. Who knows? Maybe that’s true.
Whatever traction this movie has comes from its actors, who do their own onscreen musical performances and help the movie evoke the creative ferment of 1990s East Coast hip-hop. Naturi Naughton and Antonique Smith contribute note-perfect impressions of Li’l Kim and Faith Evans, respectively. In the nonmusical roles, Derek Luke catches the slippery side of Sean “Puffy” Combs, while Biggie’s real-life son, Christopher Wallace Jr., fully inhabits the role of the 13-year-old version of his dad. The one major demerit is Anthony Mackie, a skilled actor who nevertheless misses the silken menace of Tupac Shakur. Jamal Woolard, a 33-year-old newcomer, headlines the film, and while he’s 11 years older than Biggie was when he was killed, this is where fat actors have an advantage over their skinnier colleagues — because fat people don’t wrinkle as much, fat actors have an easier time playing characters who are younger or older than they are. Woolard (a real-life rapper who calls himself Gravy) does an uncanny impersonation of Biggie’s legendary swagger as well as his distinctive delivery. One musical highpoint is Woolard’s rendition of “Party and Bullshit.” Those things are pretty much what Notorious has to sell, so that’s appropriate.
Fat actors are more likely to star in comedies, but there’s a special breed of fat actor who can win laughs by surprising us with his or her physical dexterity. John Belushi was one, Chris Farley was another. Kevin James is much more grounded than either of those live-wire performers, yet he shows himself to be in that same class in Paul Blart: Mall Cop. There’s a bit near the end of this action-comedy in which his character scales an 8-foot chain-link fence, and James executes a perilously ungainly swan dive over the top before landing cat-like on his feet. It’s all done in one fluid take so we can see that James is actually performing the stunt. This is only a throwaway gag, but it makes you stop and wonder how he did that.
James plays the title character, a hypoglycemic police-academy washout who grimly patrols West Orange, N.J.’s mall on his Segway scooter, issuing citations to old people driving their electric wheelchairs too fast. The writers can’t decide whether Paul is a supercop who’s trapped in an overweight body and a dead-end job, or whether he’s a sad-sack loser who can’t get a date and eats to cope with his loneliness. (“Peanut butter fills the cracks in the heart. Go away, pain.”) One minute he’s issuing a detailed report to his apathetic superiors to improve foot-traffic patterns in the mall, the next he’s stupidly failing to follow up after temporarily blinding a bad guy. A little consistency with the main character would have helped the film immeasurably.
So would better jokes, though a precious few punchlines hit home. Paul’s forced into action after a gang of parkour thugs stage an armed takeover of the mall on Black Friday. The plot plays out much like Die Hard’s, with Paul stealthily lurking in the mall and taking the thugs out one by one. The bad guy’s plot demonstrates ingenuity beyond the call of a little comedy like this, and director Steve Carr controls the tone so that this PG-rated movie doesn’t feel like an R-rated action flick that’s been toned down for the kids. Through it all, the star slips and slides through this thing with a strange mixture of control and abandon, and he generates just enough funny physical shtick to keep this thing watchable. Now if only a few more movies like this would showcase the talent of fat actresses, our multiplex would be an even better place.

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