Audiences heart 'Paul Blart'

January 31, 2009 7:11:34 PM PST
Much like its goofy titular character, "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" has defied expectations. The slapstick comedy, which cost a mere $26 million to produce, is speeding toward the $100 million mark following back-to-back weekends atop the box office. Could this surprise success signal the arrival of Kevin James in Hollywood's stable of bankable leading comedic actors?

For nine seasons, James served as the lovable master of ceremonies on the CBS sitcom "The King of Queens." Now, audiences have been filling movie theaters to see 43-year-old James as Paul Blart, a hypoglycemic single father who takes his security-guard job at the West Orange Pavilion Mall in New Jersey way too seriously.

"I think it had so much heart," said the movie's casting director, Jeanne McCarthy, who also worked on "Forgetting Sarah Marshall. "I think Kevin James totally has achieved leading-man status. When he was on 'King of Queens,' I would watch a 'King of Queens' episode over anything else - even when it was syndicated."

Jeff Sussman, James' longtime manager, said he was not surprised at his client's recent box office boom. Sussman said James has always been deliberately cautious about making the leap from television to film - first teaming with Will Smith in 2005's "Hitch" and then with Adam Sandler in 2007's "I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry."

But James, previously untested as a leading man, has proven he can command a movie with "Paul Blart."

James is fielding several projects, including one in development that's poised to capitalize on a clearly winning formula: "Zookeeper," which will again feature him as a uniformed leading man. He also plans to co-star in another movie with Sandler, whose Happy Madison Productions helped produce "Paul Blart."

To be sure, exactly what's been drawing audiences to James' first lead role could have nothing to do with James. It's not as if moviegoers were overwhelmed with fresh choices in mid-January, typically a dumping ground for studios; and the theory goes that lighter fare plays best in downbeat times.

Whatever the reason, there's at least one group that doesn't heart "Paul Blart": real security guards. For starters, they say the phrase "mall cop" is nearly as demeaning as the dreaded "rent-a-cop" moniker.

"I think it reinforces a stereotype the security industry has been working on dispelling for years," said Bob Zalud, editor of Security magazine. "These good folks are trained rather well, in terms of hours accumulated. It would seem, in some ways, we're still fighting a perception that they are less than fully trained or just adequate at their jobs."

Bud Bradley, operations vice president of AlliedBarton Security Services, which provides security services across the country to - among other places - retail malls, said he was concerned about the portrayal of mall security officers as wannabe cops in "Paul Blart," but he acknowledged he thought the movie was funny - although not very realistic.

"Our challenges with security officers is making sure they perform up to expectations and their level of authority," said Bradley. "In the movie, Paul Blart takes on a role where he gets involved in a criminal matter. At that point, our officers would know to stand down, step back and allow the law enforcement to take over."

James himself said he hopes children learn to appreciate the Paul Blarts of the world from the PG-rated film.

"I hope they respect mall cops, is what I hope, really," James said while promoting the movie. "You know, what I've experienced and I see is that they just get abused, these mall police officers. I can't even call them police officers because they're not real police. That's their job, when the going gets tough, to call the real police."

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