I'm not kidding when I say that I found the first Paul Blart: Mall Cop to be more depressing than a more traditional downer like, say, Requiem for a Dream or 12 Years a Slave. The reason why that movie bummed me out so much has a lot to do with the distinction between sympathy and empathy. I can easily recognize how much the characters were suffering in Requiem or Slave but there's a hard limit on how much I can put myself in their shoes because I know that I will never be a heroin junkie or a slave. I can't deny that those movies are affecting, but I compartmentalized their traumas so easily that they didn't really stick with me. The first Paul Blart, however, hit close to home because his specific problems were slightly exaggerated versions of my problems and thus it was harder to emotionally distance myself from them. Paul Blart: Mall Cop is about a man whose job is unfulfilling, whose love life is nonexistent, who is basically living on society's bottom rung. My life isn't as bad as Blart's, but it is not so much better than I can afford to laugh at him lightly.
So when I say that the Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 is infinitely more enjoyable than the first one you have to understand that I'm making a relative claim. There is nothing about this film that is particularly memorable or remarkable. Its plot about a mall security guard who accidentally bumbles into a major art heist at a fancy Las Vegas casino while he is on vacation is basically a mishmash of overused ideas stolen from Die Hard and Oceans 11 but with more slapstick thrown in. However, the fact that Paul Blart 2 is so much more unrealistic and so much more movie-like compared to the original is actually an improvement. Now that I couldn't see myself in Paul Blart's shoes it was much easier to see the humor in his various embarrassments.
The difference between the two movies is simple: this second Blart movie accelerates the pace of its story drastically. Whereas the first movie took its time establishing Blart's hopes and dreams, basically acting as a character study in its first half, the sequel's idea of character work is putting Blart in a Hawaiian shirt. It instantly establishes him as a doofus, albeit a well meaning one, and then moves onto it's ridiculous plot. To be fair Blart part deux doesn't completely abandon the narrative threads of the first movie - it just limits itself to acknowledging them in its opening scenes. As soon as we see Blart get served by divorce papers from the woman of his dreams and his mom be run over by a milk truck we're off to Sin City, where all of the hijinks can begin in earnest.
Indeed, the bulk of the movie is just low-stakes silliness. Blart doesn't spend any time trying to find a new wife; instead he spends his time running into glass windows that he doesn't realize are there. He doesn't fret about his money problems; instead he gets kicked by a police horse into the side of a minivan. He doesn't worry about his future; instead he gets attacked by a fancy looking bird in the hotel's "contemplation room" while a piano player watches with complete indifference. (The bird might have been a female peacock? I don't know my birds, but it definitely looked exotic and expensive.) Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 doesn't have much to offer that feels new, and I wouldn't call it a particularly smart movie, but I have to admit that I enjoyed parts of it. However, you might want to take that admission with a grain of salt, as I am officially on the record as a fan of scenes where doofuses fight animal puppets and lose.
Of course, my "I was unimpressed but I enjoyed it" stance makes me an outlier given that critics hated Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 with an unusual ferocity. However, I think their antipathy actually says more about them than it does about this movie, because their eagerness to dump on the Blarts of the world seems to be coming from a pretty petty place.
The first reason why I object to the snarky tone that people use when they talk about Paul Blart is that it seems very lazy to me. The name "Paul Blart" is funnier and easier to remember than names like "Joe Dirt" or "Bucky Larson" and so Paul Blart has ended up becoming the catch-all for a certain type of lowbrow comedy even though it isn't significantly better or worse than most of its brethren. Basically, Paul Blart has become cinemas version of Nickelback - the go-to name you drop when you want to signify that you have better taste than the rest of America. That may or may not be fair - I'm certainly not going to defend either this movie or that band against the charge of tastelessness. But I am going to say that people who diss either these movies or that band in an attempt to be witty aren't being nearly as clever as they think they are because bother references are so obvious and overused. In fact, most of the comments I've seen about both Nickelback and Paul Blart are just as derivative and hyperbolic as the cultural products they aim to mock.
The second reason why it bothers me that critics have shit on these movies as much as they have is because I think that many of them have misunderstood their mission as critics. A good critic does not render absolute judgment on something but rather tries to use their commentary to put that thing into a broader context. I see a lot of online reviews of shows like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad and almost no reviews of something like Two and a Half Men - and that totally makes sense because those cable prestige dramas require context in a way that a stupid network sitcom doesn't. Shows like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad are aimed at people who want to engage with challenging art; creating a discussion about them is productive because those dialogs could expose a reader to perspectives that might enrich their own experience. In contrast, generic network sitcoms like Two and a Half Men are aimed at distracting people who are tired or stressed out; trying to force their audience to analyze what they just saw would ruin their experience because the whole point was to give their brain a bit of a break. Paul Blart is a lot more like Two and a Half Men than it is like Game of Thrones, in that isn't very good and isn't necessarily trying to be, but that doesn't mean that it fails as art. A guy at the screening last night laughed really hard when Paul Blart accidentally suckerpunched a geriatric cleaning lady in her gut, and that guy doesn't need someone trying to explain to him why that scene was the work of unoriginal hacks.
It is telling that my best argument in favor of Paul Blart involves invoking Nickelback and Two and a Half Men. It is an undeniable fact that this film is not cinematic gold in the same way those are not musical / televisual gold. At the same time, I am legitimately not trying to condescend to Paul Blart Two by comparing it to two entities that have been permanently exiled to our cultural leper colony. In fact, just the opposite - I'm trying to put this movie in its proper context, and that involves lumping it in with the other works of art that are aimed at middle class Americans that live in flyover country. The ultimate truth about Blart/Nickelback/Men is that their main crime is that they are meant for people that our cultural elites consider to be indiscriminate and dumb - and maybe they are, but that doesn't mean that they don't have a right to be entertained.
I can only go so far in defending these 'atrocities' against the allegation that they are pandering and overly simplistic because they aren't really meant for me - I'm too prone to overthinking things to be able to enjoy these works of art in the way they were meant to be enjoyed. That said, I'm glad that they exist and that they make some people happy. I love Paul Thomas Anderson, but I don't think that every movie that gets made has to have the same epic emotional scope as There Will Be Blood. In fact, sometimes it's better if a movie has a more limited approach. After all, 100% of the time I would prefer to watch Paul Blart literally punch an old lady in the gut and laugh than watch him get existentially punched in the gut and think "oh, this is a metaphor for the death of the middle class."