He’s overweight, unarmed and underappreciated, and he’s Hollywood’s newest poster boy for every powerless schlub who wants to show the world that he’s the Man. First came Paul Blart: Mall Cop, a slapstick comedy about the clumsy heroics of a mild-mannered security guard. It became a sleeper hit in January. And now Canadian actor Seth Rogen is on the rampage in Observe and Report, another comedy about an overzealous mall cop on a mission.
There are uncanny similarities between the two movies. Both involve a heavy-set mall security guard who lives with his mother, falls for a blond sales clerk at a beauty kiosk, kicks into action when she’s threatened by a predator, and competes with a real cop to win the day. But the resemblance is superficial. Blart is a wholesome formula farce that’s as mainstream as Wal-Mart, a profanity-free mix of slapstick and sentiment. Observe and Report is Blart’s evil twin: a dark comedy spiked with cocaine, drunken sex, violence and nudity—Rogen plays a virtual psychopath and his quarry is a serial flasher.
Although there’s not a hint of transgression in the sunny studio posters of Rogen in uniform, his bipolar character was inspired by Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, according to the movie’s writer-director, Jody Hill, who finds the inevitable comparisons to Blart odious. “It’s annoying that every time I read an article, they mention this piece-of-s–t movie,” he told a press conference at the recent South by Southwest Film Festival. “I don’t want a battle of the mall cops.”
But Hollywood often pulls ideas from the zeitgeist in pairs—Dante’s Peak vs. Volcano, Armageddon vs. Deep Impact, Tombstone vs. Wyatt Earp. And this idea seems overdue. Slacker comedy has always hung out at the mall, and now it comes of age in a world where loitering is a profession. Being a mall cop is like uniformed unemployment. It’s the ultimate fake job, playing a cop without a gun in a toytown of pretend law enforcement, where pursuit is given in golf carts and scooters. The role is absurd, and prone to ridicule, like an overgrown hall monitor patrolling some halfway house between adolescence and adult responsibility. But the world is tailor-made for a genre of comedy ruled by nerds out to prove their manhood—not unlike the carnival midway in Adventureland, another new comedy about a geek clutching at credibility in a childish job.
In Observe and Report, Rogen subverts the mall cop stereotype with an edge of sadism. But there’s something deeply Canadian about the role of the meek, unarmed security guard. Canadians, in fact, pioneered its comic potential—from Chas Lawther, whose Chuck the Security Guard character was a cult sensation on late-night TV in the early ’80s, to John Candy and Eugene Levy, cast as hapless rent-a-cops in Armed and Dangerous (1986). And long before Blart or Observe and Report, a pair of twentysomething Toronto filmmakers pitched a mall cop comedy with a proposed sitcom called Mall Insecurity. Three years ago, actor Jordan McCloskey and director Pietro Gagliano scripted a pilot, plotted out episodes, and shot a few vignettes in a parking lot. But after a flurry of meetings with interested producers, the project fizzled. Some of their acquaintances later posted a blog insinuating that Hollywood’s mall cop movies stole their idea, a charge that Gagliano rejects: “I know we were the first people out there with the idea, but I don’t feel ripped off. I feel we just missed the boat.”
McCloskey hasn’t seen the mall cop movies, but says Mall Insecurity is closer in spirit to Observe and Report than to Paul Blart. And it was inspired partly by the experiences of a friend, Kid Carson, who once worked as a mall cop—and who now hosts Vancouver’s top morning radio show on 94.5 FM. Just as Seth Rogen’s character is obsessed with nabbing a flasher, Carson’s security squad spent a year trying to nail a car thief at the Woodbine Centre Mall in Etobicoke, Ont. Ironically, the day after Carson got fired from his job, he was at the mall as a civilian and caught the thief in the act. The culprit tried to escape on a bicycle and got stuck between parked cars, recalls Carson, who tackled him and pinned him to the ground until the police—and his former boss—arrived on the scene. “It was a perfect movie ending,” says Carson, who looks back on mall security as the most unglamorous of jobs. “It didn’t matter how hard you flirted with the girls at Le Château. They still looked at you like you were a dork, a wannabe cop with a clip-on tie.”