CULT CORNER: Mallrats (1995)

With a long-touted sequel on the way, we thought it was the ideal time to revisit Kevin Smith’s love-letter to Marvel and stink-palming. It can only be Mallrats.

Who made it?: Kevin Smith (Writer/Director), Scott Mosier, Sean Daniel, James Jacks (Producers), Universal Pictures.

Who’s in it?: Jason Lee, Jeremy London, Shannen Doherty, Ben Affleck, Claire Forlani, Joey Lauren Adams, Jason Mewes.

Tagline: “They’re not there to shop. They’re not there to work. They’re just there.”

IMDb rating: 7.1/10.

Film critic Kenneth Turan once wrote that, if a film school taught a class on what not to do with your second feature, “Mallrats would be at the heart of its curriculum.” Harsh words, but many ageing journalists agreed with Turan when teen flick Mallrats opened to muted fanfare in 1995. Cult hero Kevin Smith has made better movies, that much is true, but this is no unmitigated disaster. There’s no real style or innovation to it, and the performances are spotty, but Mallrats never wanted to be high art. It was just content to tell a few off-colour jokes and appeal to the growing number of Generation X’ers weaned on comic books. In that respect, it almost anticipated the mainstream revival of superhero media. Would it be fair to say that some people just weren’t ready for it?

If you’re in the frame of mind, Mallrats can be a very entertaining brew. Universal certainly had high hopes for the project, describing it as a “smart Porky’s,” and treating it to advance screenings across America. It even received applause from the audience at the San Diego Comic-Con, but that wasn’t too surprising – the film follows a comic-obsessed geek and features a cameo appearance from the mighty Stan Lee. Of course they lapped it up! Such aspects wouldn’t appeal to the masses, however, but the VHS and subsequent DVD releases gave it a new lease of life. People soon realised that Smith’s work wasn’t a total failure, and even some of those stuffy critics have warmed to it over the years. It is flawed for sure; marred by Smith’s limited grasp of pacing and a story that often treads water. That said, Mallrats has a loveable slacker attitude that has made it a perennial favourite amongst the disenfranchised.

If the film had a problem, it was the task of living up to expectations. Truth be told, the dreaded “sophomore jinx” is pretty common, with many filmmakers failing to recapture the promise of their debuts. Smith was clearly facing an uphill battle, since his first feature was so successful and the definition of capturing lightning in a bottle. He helped shape modern independent film with Clerks (1994), the ultimate look at over-the-counter culture. It was made for $27,000, but went on to make several million dollars for Miramax. It was a reminder that filmmakers don’t need a studio budget to make popular, entertaining pictures. Despite its clear technical limitations, Clerks succeeded – a vibrant cult oddity, filled with memorable characters and hilarious scenarios. Smith and his producer Scott Mosier were approached by Universal to repeat their success, and the pair were more than happy to get embroiled in the Hollywood machine.

Smith immediately got to work on a screenplay, which recycled the formula of his debut. The result was Mallrats – a comedy that tipped its hat to the teen comedies of the 80s, and in particular, the work of John Hughes. Smith even hinted at this by hiring composer Ira Newborn, who worked on the bulk of Hughes’ films. On a budget of $6 million, the neophyte director delivered a picture that was essentially the “big-budget” spawn of Clerks. Quirky, offbeat characters wander through a monument of consumerism, while dissecting their relationships and spewing endless pop-culture references. What else were critics expecting?

Like most of Smith’s work, the story is rather inconsequential and there merely to thread each comedic set-piece to the next. Mallrats follows two college-age underachievers, T.S. Quint (Jeremy London) and Brodie Bruce (Jason Lee), who embark upon the Eden Prairie shopping mall to get over their stagnant private lives. T.S. has been dumped by his intended fiancée, Brandi (Claire Forlani), and Brodie’s put-upon girlfriend, Rene (Shannen Doherty), has finally dumped him after suffering his eccentricities long enough (which include Smith’s favourite vices: comic books and Sega hockey). Naturally, both ladies end up at the same mall, inspiring our intrepid pair to win back their hearts…

Mallrats works best as a character piece, and Smith certainly has a good imagination for offbeat personalities. The mall is filled with quirky shoppers, from the overweight weirdo Willem Black (Ethan Suplee, making his screen debut), who does nothing but stare at a “Magic Eye” painting in a bid to see the hidden picture, to Trish (Rene Humphreys), a sixteen-year-old who is writing a sex book called “Boregasm.” And this being a part of Smith’s View Askewniverse, we also have the dynamic duo Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith, respectively). This time, the would-be dope dealers are trying to stop the filming of a cheesy dating game show, which is being shot on mall grounds. In charge is Jared Svenning (Michael Rooker), who happens to be Brandi’s father. Thrown-in are the thuggish Shannon Hamilton (a pre-fame Ben Affleck) and the sexually adventurous Gwen (Chasing Amy’s Joey Lauren Adams). Suffice it to say that there are too many characters here, especially when the story boils down to T.S. and Brodie’s attempts to patch-up their relationships.

The pairing of London and Lee provides mixed results. In no way do they compare to the brilliance of Dante and Randal in Clerks. The character of T.S. is poorly sketched for a start, and played with little enthusiasm by London (who was apparently stoned for much of the filming). Smith doesn’t convince us that they’ve been friends forever, yet the script awards them with plenty of great lines. The film works due to Lee. In fact, the entire film rests on his shoulders. Quitting a life as a successful skateboarder, Lee decided to pursue acting and this was his first leading role. He fits Brodie like a glove, and was born to deliver Smith’s dialogue. He’s hilarious here, and most of the belly laughs are due to him. It’s not surprising that the director would go on to cast him in nearly every View Askew film since – Lee’s a comedic dynamo, and he gives Mallrats its one true success.

Problems with Mallrats are mostly on a technical level. This early in his career, Smith was merely competent as a director, pointing his camera at the actors and letting them perform. He didn’t film much coverage and had a tendency to rely on master shots – hardly the most dynamic filmmaker. He has developed immeasurably over the years, though, no matter what certain historians will lead you to believe, and films like Dogma and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back allowed him to show more creativity visually. For Mallrats, he re-teamed with DP David Klein, who gives the film the same low-tech vibe as Clerks, despite possessing a budget. The picture is bolder and more refined, but nothing in Mallrats is pulled off with any panache. Only the opening titles – which represents each member of the cast in comic book form – impresses artistically.

But everyone knows that Smith’s main concern is dialogue. He thrives on the English language, offering up a multitude of witty lines that are quoted endlessly. While he misses the same laugh-per-minute ratio of ClerksMallrats offers a few gems, such as the discussion into Superman’s sexual habits, Brodie’s meeting with Stan Lee, or the climactic dating game scene, in which Brodie makes some very inappropriate comments on live TV. The verbal sparring is bolstered by several notable scenes – T.S. and Brodie’s run-in with a topless psychic, Willem’s fury at not seeing “the sailboat,” and Jay and Silent Bob’s frequent attempts at sabotaging the TV show. Bluntman and Chronic often steal the show, and in Mallrats they provide the reason for their enduring popularity – they’re hilarious. Mewes came into his own here, honing the characteristics of his loud-mouthed alter-ego, and bouncing off Smith effortlessly, providing View Askew with popular cult figures. Alongside Lee, they keep Mallrats fun and rewatchable.

Two decades later, Smith’s second picture has risen in popularity, becoming a genuine cult hit. It certainly didn’t deserve to die at the box office, barely scraping $1 million in its opening weekend in America, and foregoing a theatrical release in the UK as a result. The writer/director has developed in leaps and bounds, but I still look back at Mallrats with some affection. His skill as a writer is very much in evidence here, more than making up for the studio-imposed limitations put forth by Universal. Anyone new to Smith’s View Askewniverse owe it to themselves to give Mallrats a chance.

Best Scene

Perhaps it is a testament to the film’s merits that I found it rather hard to pick a favourite moment. That Superman conversation is priceless, and who could forget Jay and Silent Bob’s escape from the mall police? In the end, however, it has to be Stan Lee’s cameo. Not only is it the perfect inclusion in a comic-literate movie, but his scene also hammers home the moral of the story rather nicely. It’s also better than any of his cameos in Marvel films.

Useless Trivia

    • Universal were unsure about Jason Mewes’ ability to play Jay (despite the fact the character was based on himself), and Seth Green was on call to replace him at any moment. Breckin Meyer was also a potential stand-in. Naturally, Mewes won the executives over a few days into filming.
    • Originally, William Atherton (GhostbustersDie Hard) was Kevin Smith’s first choice to play Jared Svenning. Atherton chose not to do it because the film was aimed at a teenage audience, yet wound up in the brain-dead Bio-Dome the following year.
    • During the Batman homage as Jay and Bob escape from mall guard La Fours, the belting attached to Smith slipped. The crane refused to start and the key could not be located, nearly resulting in a possibly lethal fall.
    • The only Smith film not to be edited by himself or Scott Mosier.
    • Stan Lee can be seen looking to his left or right repeatedly while talking with Brodie. This is so he can see his cue cards – not being a trained actor, memorizing lines was very difficult for him. Jeremy London, on the other hand, despite being an experienced actor, forgot his lines repeatedly.
    • While shopping, Rene (Shannen Doherty) is seen wearing at least three different outfits. Doherty had a clause in her contract that she could keep everything her character wore, so came up with the plan that her character should wear everything she bought on her shopping trip.
    • Brodie’s shirt is the merged faces of three actors that tried out for the part and didn’t get it.
    • The content of the dialogue between Quint and Brodie about whether Superman would be able to have sex and/or a baby with a non-superpowered woman is taken from a classic 1971 essay by science fiction author Larry Niven called “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex.”

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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