Movie Duel: Paul Blart: Mall Cop vs. Observe and Report
Welcome back to Movie Duels, in which we watch two dueling movies and offer our eminently qualified opinion of which film, if any, has a reason for existing, and which one should have been left back at the pitch meeting.
Before I get started, I’d like to give much respect to Tyler Peterson for keeping this series going for over a year now. Thanks to him, we’ve explored a wide array of eerily similar movies released within a 16-month window of each other and learned quite a bit about how the same premise can often result in two vastly different films. And amazingly, we’re far from done, which is why I’ve been inspired to finally step into the Movie Duel arena myself, and examine the curious case of the competing mall cop comedies of 2009: Paul Blart: Mall Cop starring Kevin James, and Observe and Report starring Seth Rogen.
Paul Blart came out first, and prior to the release of Observe and Report, Rogen and director Jody Hill (The Foot Fist Way) gave an interview to GQ where they insisted they were always well aware of the other mall cop comedy in production, and were even sharing photos between sets to make sure the films didn’t turn out too similar. But despite Rogen’s and Hill’s assurances that the two movies were completely different (and really, what else would you expect them to say?), this may be one of the few occasions in Movie Duel history where I don’t need to come up with two separate plot summaries to describe the two movies that are currently dueling, at least not until well into the second act.
James’ Paul Blart and Rogen’s Ronnie Barnhardt are both sad-sack shopping mall security guards who still live with their mothers and have dreams of becoming real cops someday, only to fail their respective entrance exams to the police academy—Blart due to his hypoglycemia, which in the world of this film makes a person pass out instantly with no warning signs, and Ronnie for purely psychological reasons where it seems he has many a dark fantasy about violently blowing away criminals.
Both become romantically obsessed and borderline stalker-ish with one of their mall co-workers: Ronnie pines away for a cosmetics clerk named Brandi played by Anna Faris (basically playing every character ever played by Anna Faris), while Blart falls for a hair extension kiosk saleswoman named Amy played by Jayma Mays (who, if we’re being frank, is the actress you get when Anna Faris isn’t available). In both movies, we know the characters are in love, or at least planning to hook up, thanks to a slow-mo “girl on the back of the guy’s bike” interlude, though in the case of Blart, this interlude happens on a Segway scooter.
Both Ronnie and Blart have to deal with partners who turn out to be criminals and are actually secretly plotting to rob the mall, though in the case of Blart it’s almost the whole plot, whereas in Observe and Report it’s just one scene played for (relatively minor) laughs. Both mall cops invoke the ire of real law enforcement in the form of respected Italian character actors: Blart faces off against Bobby Cannavale’s SWAT commander, while Ronnie becomes a thorn in the side of Ray Liotta’s police detective. There’s even a scene in both films where a character hops in the raffle car on display in the middle of the mall and drives it straight through the sliding glass doors.
Honestly, I could keep going with describing the similarities between the two movies, but then it might sound like I’m building up a copyright infringement case for one of them. And I’m definitely not doing that; once you come up with the basic concept of “mall cop comedy”, almost all of these plot points flow pretty naturally from that premise. I mean, come on, who’s going to make a movie about a mall security guard who doesn’t still live with his mom?
With that aside, let’s focus on how the films deviate. First of all, the actual malls featured in the two films are stark opposites: Observe takes place at an aging, downtrodden shopping center full of working class patrons that’s likely teetering on the edge of financial ruin in the wake of the Great Recession, which is a far cry from the newly-constructed, upscale galleria seen in Paul Blart, and the differences between the two locations reflect the films’ aspirations: Blart is clearly trying to be a safe, clean, crowd-pleasing comedy aimed at a wide audience, whereas Observe is a more down-and-dirty affair, which Rogen and Hill even likened to a comedic Taxi Driver.
To that end, Paul Blart is rated PG and mostly goes for easy, family-friendly humor, while Observe is R-rated for rampant profanity, drug use, and nudity (though, none on the part of anyone you’d actually care to see naked; in fact, most of it is courtesy of a trench coat-clad flasher who demonstrates in an interminable sequence that he is in fact a grower and not a shower). But even the ratings discrepancy doesn’t make that much of a difference, because both films are going for some pretty broad and over-the-top comedy.
As noted above, the heist plot is the primary focus of Paul Blart: Mall Cop, but it still doesn’t kick in until well past the 45-minute mark. Up until then, it’s just Blart being Blart, riding his Segway around the mall, getting drunk after hours with coworkers, and doing James’ usual fatty-fall-down shtick. We learn Blart is getting over a divorce, and with the encouragement of his young daughter and also his mother (Shirley Knight), he signs up for a dating site, which ultimately comes to nothing except for a minor bit towards the end. And while we’re on the subject of abandoned plot threads, did anyone else notice that Blart’s mom is completely forgotten about after the first hour? (Though for Shirley Knight, this must have felt like a blessing; Sweet Bird of Youth to this?)
Eventually, Blart’s new partner and a group of criminals who apparently just came from a Billabong catalog shoot take over the mall for unclear reasons; their leader makes constant reference to getting the “codes”, and there are strings of digits written on everybody’s forearms in ink that’s only visible under black light, but I don’t understand any of it, and I doubt the screenwriters did either.
When the heist first happens, the criminals empty out the mall except for a handful of hostages (including Blart’s crush Amy, naturally), but Blart is too engrossed in playing Guitar Hero at the arcade to notice, and as a result ends up being the only person with a badge left on the inside. If this sounds like “Die Hard in a mall, but played for laughs”, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what they were going for here. Which, truth be told, isn’t that bad of an idea for a movie (and this concept was of course already previously made into a “serious” action film), except there are really no laughs to be found here. It’s not that the jokes are outright painful; it’s that Paul Blart: Mall Cop goes for the laziest, most obvious punchline whenever possible.
As you’d expect, Blart conquers his fears and his hypoglycemia, and despite possessing no actual firearms, is able to take out the criminals one by one with elaborate Home Alone-style slapstick traps. If you guessed he eventually earns the respect of actual law enforcement and wins Amy’s heart along with her hand in marriage, give yourself a cookie. Especially if you’re hypoglycemic, because you’re really going to need it after watching this movie.
In Observe and Report, Rogen’s Ronnie Barnhardt is much more disturbed than the simply loser-ish Paul Blart. Ronnie takes anti-psychotic meds and has a racist streak and is quick to whip out his tazer on unsuspecting shopkeepers. Ronnie and his mall cop deputies fantasize about the day when they’ll be allowed to carry guns, but it’s obvious that these are about the last people who should be entrusted with lethal firearms.
When a pervert exposes himself to Ronnie’s crush Brandi, Ronnie takes the matter deadly serious. Despite clearly being incapable of solving any sort of crime, he becomes consumed with catching the flasher. He gets in the way of the actual investigation being conducted by Ray Liotta’s police detective, who eventually loudly berates Ronnie as nothing but a pathetic rent-a-cop. This inspires Ronnie to show the world he has what it takes to become a real police officer, but after he fails the entrance exam, he journeys down a disturbing path.
But you know, not too disturbing. There seems to have been a conspicuous effort on the part of the makers of Observe and Report to keep things light and jokey, when perhaps the material demanded a darker and deeper look into Ronnie’s twisted psyche. And while as mentioned above, the film’s star and director likened this to a comedic version of Taxi Driver, it’s nowhere near as dark, nor is it terribly funny.
This was writer-director Jody Hill’s second feature after the cult comedy The Foot Fist Way. And there’s a case to be made that Observe is pretty close to the same movie, just with taekwondo replaced by mall security. But Observe doesn’t deliver nearly the same amount of laughs. Danny McBride, the lead in Foot Fist Way (seen here in a small cameo as a crack dealer), had the sort of natural, easy charm that can only come from a non-Hollywood, unpolished leading man. Seth Rogen, on the other hand, tries hard to transform himself into a deluded, mentally challenged failure, but he just can’t pull it off.
But the real problem is that Observe and Report can’t commit to being the truly black comedy it should be. Every now and then, it ventures into dark territory, but quickly scurries back into the light. At the outset, I expected to see one man’s slow descent into madness, but instead it turns out to be more of a “one man’s occasional forays into creepiness” type of story. And the film is just too laid-back and low-key to provide many laughs. Foot Fist Way was also extremely low-key, but it became a cult hit due to its high quotability factor. There’s not much to quote in Observe and Report, aside from a few hilarious lines delivered by MVP Celia Weston as Ronnie’s unapologetically alcoholic mom. And at least unlike Blart, the movie doesn’t forget she exists after the one-hour mark.
Overall, Observe and Report feels like a deliberate attempt to create a “cult comedy”. But as proven time and time again, you can’t make a cult film on purpose; either movie buffs take to it or they don’t, and no one can predict which films will fortuitously earn a rabid fanbase long after they’ve left theaters.
Which one needs to exist?
For at least attempting to be a challenging film with a deeply flawed protagonist, I have to give the edge to Observe and Report, but let’s be real; neither film is one for the ages.
But guess which one got a sequel? Yes, as is usually the case with these Movie Duel articles, the worse film got a follow-up, and from everything I’ve read about it (because there’s no amount of website hits that’s going to get me to actually watch Paul Blart 2), the sequel does the usual thing where it kills off the lead character’s happily-ever-after romance from the first movie just so he can go through the same meet-cute plot all over again.
Observe and Report never got a sequel, but shortly after its release, Jody Hill co-created the HBO series Eastbound & Down with Danny McBride (who also stars), which frankly isn’t my cup of tea, but I certainly respect the fact that it ran four seasons and made McBride’s Kenny Powers into an genuine cult anti-hero.