Last summer, I kicked off the ‘Was I Nuts?’ series with Kevin Smith’s debut film Clerks. I was curious to know if a staple from my teenage years still held any muster. In the end I found it still good, but not quite the all-time great comedy I had remembered it being.
Clerks wasn’t the only gem in the Smith gauntlet however. It’s biggest fanboys, of which I most certainly was, memorized his next four films with significant, if slightly lesser, enthusiasm. So, to kick off the 2015 run of ‘Was I Nuts?’; it’s all Kevin Smith, all the time in order to see how the rest of that “classic” run of his filmography holds. I begin things with his supposed to be breakout movie Mallrats.
Arriving in theatres in late 1995, Mallrats was thought to be the film to take Smith from buzz-y indie icon to a bankable comedy director. This didn’t work out. Many of the critics that championed his first feature decried Mallrats as infantile and a complete misfire. Smith himself apologized for the film months after its release.
Nonetheless, as the cult of Smith grew, Mallrats was accepted.
The film follows a pair of aimless dolts. The first is the sensitive and easily bothered T.S. (Jeremy London), who ends up dumped by his girlfriend Brandi (Claire Forlani) in the opening of the film. This situation is immediately followed by Rene (Shannon Doherty) leaving Brodie (Jason Lee) after another round of his videogame obsession and mother-fearing. As the topless psychic eventually states, the two are both on the outs with their prospective studies. They opt for a day at the local mall, where each ends up confronting their exes amidst a live game-show, take part in a pre-Marvel Stan Lee cameo and meet up with Smith staples Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith himself). Plus, Ben Affleck continues his string of playing complete assholes in 90s ensemble movies (see Dazed and Confused, School Ties).
Mallrats was a total staple of my California, Maryland teen years. I had recorded it off Starz onto a VHS tape with who knows what else on it, but it was Smith’s story of comic-book nerds, stink-palms and Silent Bob that was prone to regular rewinds. Though my closest friends and I regularly quoted it, I definitely recall it consuming my hours less than Clerks or later Chasing Amy. Why this was the case I can’t recall. We regurgitated various monologues, attempted to use Brodie’s cup trick to get free soda at the food court and yelled about how it’s a “God damned sailboat!” Yet, there has to be a reason it never hit my bones as deeply.
There is additionally a strange memory of sitting down one Saturday night with my dear friend Charlie and viewed the cable version, which had so much of Jay’s dialogue re-dubbed he could hardly be called the actor playing the part.
I’m worried about this one. The ageing of comedies is a special thing and I think my gut instincts to not care for Mallrats the way I did for Clerks might be wiser than I realized. Smith’s fanbase remains large, even if many of those that once gorged his every offering has changed. Telling a friend I was going to be going on this all-Smith roadtrip down memory lane was met with, “Why would you do that to yourself.”
Who knows, maybe Smith was right to apologize for this film. Maybe he was right years later to welcome it back into the fold. I just fear I’m in store for 94 minutes of masturbation jokes.
Mallrats is not unlike Clerks in many ways. The structure of it all is rather identical, with the two best friends – one the straight man, the other the goofball – hanging around a self-enclosed area. They ponder their love-lives, popular culture and the weirdos that walk by them.
The big difference is Clerks is funny.
Mallrats features the same rapid nature of its jokes, layering in punchlines, callbacks and stingers to each of its scenes. The success rate is poor and then some. The film has a sheen to it that, despite its comfortable vulgarity, nevertheless feels utterly safe. Yes, you won’t find many movies that discuss whether or not The Thing has a rocky, orange shaft, but that is missing the point. Smith’s movie claws for laughs to a cloying degree, PG-13-ing its predecessors edges.
Take the Smith staples Jay and Silent Bob. In Clerks they were almost dangerous; heckling passersby, selling drugs and generally just wanting to fuck with the world. Here, they play cute with kittens, use a sock full of quarters to attack someone and quote Return of the Jedi. They no longer stick out, becoming merely part of the nerdy core of this cast of characters. As I recall, Chasing Amy attempted to rectify this with Silent Bob going on a lengthy monologue about his own personal qualms, while Jay ridiculed saying things like the Mallrats line “Snoochie boochies.”
Worse is T.S., a less engaging Dante 2.0. Nobody would ever claim Brian O’Halloran kills it as Dante in Clerks. There is something to him and the character though. He’s a sad-sack who is rightly ridiculed for looking at the worst case scenario in every situation, even as he skirts the blame at each turn. It was unclear exactly why he was so close to his co-worker/best-friend Randall (Jeff Anderson) at times, even if in the end there was an established history and mutual interests. In Mallrats, London’s T.S. takes the moping element of Dante, along with being the less eccentric one of a twosome and loses all of the shading. London stares doe-eyed as he comes to personal realizations about his romantic relationships, has zero worthwhile lines and comes off as an uninteresting prude. Not aiding London is Smith’s script, giving T.S. question after question. I didn’t keep track, though if I had I’m positive half of his lines are questions about how someone feels, what’s happening or clarifications for odd statements.
London’s romantic interest is no better. I was always curious in high school why Claire Forlani didn’t become a bigger star; it would appear it was tied to her acting ability. The amount of time given to this dull duo’s longings is a big gap in the center of Mallrats. The concluding game-show features T.S. sneaking his way onto the set where Claire is picking a suitor to go out with. They banter back and forth about the seriousness of the relationship, life goals and the like; all tedious. The chemistry is non-existent.
At least Jason Lee’s Brodie has some strangely compelling connection with Shannon Doherty’s Rene. They bicker and bite with passion, each angry at the world about whatever and seemingly content to be bitter together.
In fact, if there’s anything to hold onto from my Mallrats memories its Lee. Though Brodie’s quips aren’t as consistent as I recalled, a good handful have stood the test of time. Watching Lee’s anger slowly boil forth as he sees a kid improperly riding an escalator over-and-over is quite hysterical, crescendo-ing with him yelling in disgust, “That’s criminal…that kid…is back on the escalator again!” It makes sense why, of all the cast, Lee was the one able to transform a part in the movie into something more as he’s one of the only people with any charisma throughout the entire feature.
Mallrats comes across like a reheated regurgitation of the Smith shtick, lacking depth to its geekery or the heartfelt cynicism of its predecessor. Two years later he would stretch out his dramatic chops with Chasing Amy, of which I will be diving into soon.