Lasciate ogne speranza, voi chi’intrate. How did it come to this? At the height of his power in Hollywood in 1999, Adam Sandler founded his own production company as a way to continue making the movies he enjoys. Over the years his films have slowly morphed into a pariah on the landscape of big budget studio comedies, becoming thinly veiled excuses for lavish vacations. But do they truly represent the nadir in the career of one of comedy’s once-brightest stars? Are there any hidden or underrated gems? Is there such a thing as too few fart jokes? Will I retain any sense of sanity by the end of this? Join me and find out, as we venture to the Happy Valley.
Every few years, the evil forces of Hollywood will work together to release two (or more) films within a short amount of time that concern themselves with very similar topics. Sidney Lumet and Stanley Kubrick tackled the Cold War and nuclear annihilation in 1964 with Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove. It happened in 1997 with disaster movies Dante’s Peak and Volcano, and the following year with Deep Impact and Armageddon. Dueling magicians were the subjects of The Illusionist and The Prestige in 2006. It happened in 2011 with the self-explanatory romantic comedies Friends with Benefits and No Strings Attached. And in 2009, the phenomenon reared its ugly head again with the amateur cop genre in Observe and Report, and the Happy Madison production Paul Blart: Mall Cop.
Naturally, the two films in question couldn’t be more dissimilar. One is a PG-rated romp that features Kevin James and some X-Games rejects posing as criminals, and the other is an R-rated pitch-black comedy with Seth Rogen, Anna Faris and copious amounts of male genitalia. Both play to their respective stars’ strengths as actors, leaning into the things for which audiences know them best. Whereas Blart treats the profession of mall security as incidental — really, Blart could have simply been a rookie cop, but the setting provides some visual gags involving Segways — Observe uses Rogen’s job as evidence of the character’s delusions of power. Blart is a jovial, good-natured soul, and Rogen’s Ronnie Barnhardt is an evolution of Travis Bickle, if Bickle were actually given some semblance of responsibility. There are some similarities between how each protagonist treats his female love interest; each features the protagonist literally leering around the corner as they creepily stare at a woman, but Blart takes it a step farther and has him training the security cameras on Jayma Mays’ face from several different angles. I think we’re meant to take this as sweet and protective, especially given the music playing over the soundtrack as he checks on her, but yikes.
Blart‘s plot is fairly simple and similar enough to past instances in this series. An aspiring state policeman, Blart has to prove himself to the world when his mall is taken over by skate punks who are out to … steal credit card numbers? (I truly couldn’t tell you what their main goal is; the script is astonishingly vague whenever it comes up.) The third act combines elements and beats from films like Die Hard, Home Alone and that one episode of The Office.
Observe, meanwhile, has more in common with Strange Wilderness in that its plot is largely inconsequential and used as an opportunity for the actors to improvise and get silly. There is a plot regarding a flasher terrorizing the mall, but the film is really a character study to explore Barnhardt’s psychotic self-righteousness.
Paul Blart: Mall Cop was a mega-hit when it hit theaters, earning $183 million worldwide against just a $26 million budget while Observe and Report barely made back its $18 million budget. Sure, some of that can be attributed to the disparity in MPAA ratings, but it can’t be overstated how much Blart aims down the middle and plays it safe. That’s not to say Blart would have been more successful critically if it had gone as dark as Observe; the latter film was carefully crafted by its writer-director (Jody Hill) and Blart just feels like an attempt by Hollywood to create a star vehicle for James. Take out a couple fat jokes and Blart could essentially plug in any hot comedian, or anyone else from the Happy Madison stable, without any major changes.
James was a household name as a sitcom star and stand-up comedian long before he starred alongside Adam Sandler in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, but I found myself wondering: What is it about James that allows him to fit so perfectly among the Happy Madison family? Is he simply a proxy for the late Chris Farley, one of Sandler’s best friends? Both actors bring a physical presence to their comedy, but where Farley’s best attribute was his live-wire unpredictability, James feels cuddlier and more reserved. Still, James makes Blart a mostly respectable character (when he’s not surveilling the girl of his dreams, that is) — someone you want to root for, even if you already know the end result before it arrives. We’ll eventually see Blart return and, though I’ve already pointed out the glaring differences between the films, I can only hope that Blart and Observe occur within the same shared universe and the sequel will see Rogen and James’s characters joining forces to bring about the destruction of America’s malls that we’re experiencing today. Hey, I’ve gotta have something to look forward to, don’t I?
- “I’m Getting Paid How Much?!” Inexplicable Cameo Award: A surprisingly light offering this week; you would think that the mall setting would provide an opportunity or two for a one-scene cameo with an eccentric store owner. I’m picking Bobby Cannavale this week because I always like seeing him pop up, even in projects that are definitively below him.
- Just Go With It: The Happy Madison Promise. Aside from the basic plot structure, there’s surprisingly few HM standards to find here. Is it old hat by now to say that Jayma Mays, as the female love interest, deserves better?
- Fart Joke Counter: FART jokes? None. FAT jokes? Too many to count.
- The Walkout Test: I think this one’s a pass. The jokes aren’t terribly mean-spirited, and there’s nothing too offensive.
- NEXT TIME: We reach the top of the bell curve on this journey as Sandler teams up with Judd Apatow and gets meta as hell in Funny People.