Friday, February 6, 2009

"Paul Blart": A Class Act

It was with a sense of low expectations at best, and some unease at worst (if for no other reason than the $35 outlay) that I took my three youngest children, ages 7-9, to see Paul Blart, Mall Cop at my local multiplex last weekend. Partly this was because long we've exhausted the crop of holiday movies, and partly because my patience with animated fare is steadily ebbing (though I do have some hopes for the forthcoming Coraline). My kids are at an age where slapstick wears relatively well -- my own appetite, unlike that of my wife, is pretty much inexhaustible -- and so I thought it a reasonable way to spend an early Saturday evening.

Blart is by no means a great movie. In terms of plot, acting, and direction, it's goals are clearly meat-and-potatoes fare -- comforting in its predictability. Reviews have generally been tepid, to judge by a brief survey of Rotten Tomatoes But the movie has nevertheless been a modest hit.

One of the things that really struck me about Blart, which I found pleasantly diverting, is the distinctive demographic slice of American life it depicts, a stratum of the U.S. population imprecisely described as lower-middle class, or petty bourgeois -- the small house-owing, wage-earning, mall-shopping segment that is in fact quite large but not typically represented as such in Hollywood movies, whether mainstream studios or independent productions. Far more typical is the inverse glamor of the slumdog millionaire or the actual glamor of the Dark Knight's Gotham or the students of Hogwarts (it is a standard trope, of course, to cross-breed these two typologies). We currently do have Clint Eastwood's Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino, but this character is an avowed relic, amusing in his attitudes and admirable in his way precisely because he is so dated. Similarly, while we do have plenty of movies set in malls, they rarely focus on adult shoppers, security guards, and retail employees who go to chain restaurants for drinks after work the way the characters in this movie do. Our fondly imagined working class listens to Bruce Springsteen; the members of this one sing karaoke to Bon Jovi.

I have not followed the career of Kevin James, who stars (if such a word can be used) as Paul Blart, though I am aware that he gained notoriety on the strength of his show The King of Queens, and in watching him on a clip of The Tonight Show recently I was struck at how well he has carved out a role from himself as the poster child of the outer boroughs. I'm surely not alone to be greatly cheered simply for the idea of an ungainly, middle-aged movie star. Similarly, while I've never been a big fan of Adam Sandler, whose Happy Madison production company produced the film, he does seem to be shrewd in identifying a core audience to which to market his lower-middlebrow sensibility -- and in teaming up again with James, with whom he starred in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry in 2007. These movies are hardly paragons of enlightenment or sophistication, but as I headed for the exit into the chilly parking lot with my easy-to-please companions (watching my daughter smile at the romantic denouement was worth the price of admission), I was reminded that words like "enlightenment" and "sophistication" are class constructs. I would not at all be surprised if this crowd-pleaser became a perennial of its kind, with a modicum appeal for those who remain open-minded no less than open-hearted.