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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
Mallrats is an awful movie with almost zero redeeming qualities whatsoever. It was a considerable box office flop that instantly made a ton of critics as well as the general public immediately reconsider writer/director Kevin Smith’s talent only two movies into his career. Mallrats is an unpleasant, amateur affair that’s about as stupid as Clerks, Smith’s first effort, is good. That is to say, Clerks is a quality piece of entertainment that holds up as a time capsule of the early to mid-90s (with some truly inventive and funny dialogue), while Mallrats is a garbage film perhaps best remembered for its clunky, forced dialogue about superhero penises Jason Lee’s breakout performance (the film’s lone highlight). I have not seen Mallrats in years, but I unfortunately remember it almost beat-by-beat (it is not a complicated movie). I hate that film so much that I really want to write about it and relish in my hatred.
I remember Mallrats so well because I have actually seen it dozens of times, despite never really liking it all that much in the first place. In the late 90s, I rented this film multiple times from the rental store and watched it on a near loop with friends and siblings for months at a time. I spent the majority of the years 1999 and 2000 watching everything Kevin Smith and his cohorts had a hand in. I purchased Chasing Amy and Clerks and watched them dozens and dozens of times as well. Dogma had recently been in theaters, and I watched that one over and over again as well. To my 17 year old self, there was no one cooler than Kevin Smith. Except for Mallrats – I never truly liked Mallrats. I liked then (and still like now) Clerks and Chasing Amy, but I always thought Mallrats just didn’t fit in with those films.
One particular difference is that Mallrats is Smith’s sole film from his early days not released by Miramax. Miramax very famously purchased and distributed Clerks in 1994 and then Chasing Amy (which had a budget of $250,000 amazingly) in early 1997. But Mallrats is immensely different from those two, as it was a Universal production backed by a budget of several million dollars (estimated to be seven million). It is shot and directed like a studio film from the 90s, and thus suffers in comparison with the other two, as they are far more “indie” looking. Mallrats is also different in that there is actually a very complicated story behind what appears (and is) to be a simple movie.
The originally filmed opening took place in some sort Revolutionary War-era reenactment/governor’s ball, wherein Jeremy London (who spends the entire movie looking uncomfortable with his hands in his pockets and who was clearly not cast by Smith) accidentally shoots a musket (why was he carrying a loaded musket in a reenactment) at the governor. This sets up a chain of events wherein London’s girlfriend Brandi’s father loses his job. Brandi wants to cut ties with London (his name in the movie is T.S. but I’m just gonna call him London), so she breaks up with him, inspiring him to find solace in a shopping mall with best friend Jason Lee, who was also recently dumped by Shannon Doherty. The theatrical cut of the film excises most of this, up until the point where Brandi breaks up with London. Hence, the film takes almost 30 minutes to get to the mall setting. The film is already painful at 94 minutes. I can’t imagine watching a two-hour version of this movie.
The edits, reshoots, rewrites, etc also lead to several continuity errors throughout the film, but these are only a few of the bizarre errors/things that make no sense present throughout Mallrats. Other than the dialogue that doesn’t fit in because the first 30 minutes of the film were redone, there are also moments of inaudible/barely audible dialogue that you can see in the captions but cannot actually hear. Moments like this include a the scene where fans wait to meet Stan Lee, where a child is trapped on an escalator, and where Brandi’s father Jared (Michael Rooker, who is usually money but is awful here) fires an underling. I have to imagine this was not done on purpose despite it being so prevalent throughout the film.
I mentioned earlier that Jason Lee, playing lovely slacker Brodie Bruce, is the sole highlight of the film. He truly shines in this film and it’s easy to see why the ex-professional skateboarder went on to have a solid career in Hollywood. He’s charismatic, funny, and a naturally good actor. There are groan-worthy moments throughout Mallrats, but few involve him. He seems to be the only one who understands the kind of movie he’s in. Contrast this with co-star London, who seriously spends the entire fucking movie with his hands in his pockets. He looks uncomfortable with Smith’s (admittedly dumb) dialogue as well as with his co-stars. There’s very little chemistry between he and Brandi. I hate to pile on the notoriously difficult Shannon Doherty, but she’s just about as awful as London. It’s hard to believe she’d ever even be seen with Jason Lee’s character, let alone date him.
I really like Clerks and Chasing Amy. I really like how they managed to be small-scale movies but still have really investing and emotional stakes. Clerks is about the daily grind of a man who has absolutely no direction in his life. He can’t make a decision about which girl he wants to date and he feels like life is slipping past him at age 22. There’s some pretty serious, heavy material in the depths of that film. Chasing Amy is about one man’s failure to keep the past in the past, which negatively impacts his relationship with the woman of his dreams as well as his relationship with his best friend and business partner. Ben Affleck’s Holden is too short sighted to look past things that happened in high school and move on to the next chapter in his life, not unlike Bryan O’Halloran’s Dante from Clerks. London and Lee aren’t deep enough as characters in Mallrats to get invested in.
Clerks and Chasing Amy garnered critical acclaim and awards for being mature looks at life in the 90s for people in their 20s. No one else was really doing that. Mallrats has a character fly face-first into a ladies dressing room for no reason that to show off a pair of tits. Clerks sees its main character struggle to balance a job, a relationship with a woman he doesn’t have much in common with, and a previous toxic relationship with a high school girlfriend. Chasing Amy explores how fluid human sexuality truly is. Mallrats’ final act hinges on a sex tape that exposes a clothing store manager as a sexual deviant. Simply put, Clerks and Chasing Amy are smart and mature movies, whereas Mallrats is immature, obnoxious, repellant, and just plain dumb.
I’ve spoken to a lot of people my age about Mallrats – many of them really like it. They are, of course, entitled to their opinions (just as I am). Though I suspect they view the film with a heavy dose of nostalgia, because I truly find it difficult to find merit of any kind in Mallrats outside of a charismatic Jason Lee performance. Roger Ebert once claimed to sit in on a panel with Kevin Smith where Smith claimed he’d be happy to make the kinds of movies studios want as long as the studios were paying. Ebert thought Smith was joking until Mallrats came out. The best I can say about Smith as that he hasn’t truly gone mercenary since. Zack and Miri was not a good movie, but it attempted to be heartfelt at least. Cop Out could have (and should have) worked, but was at least a fun misfire at worst. The movies he makes now (such as Tusk and Yoga Hosers) couldn’t be less commercial. I’ll commend him for making what he wants to make, but I still get to hate Mallrats. I’ll always hate Mallrats.
Kevin Smith’s Clerks was a big part of the indie movie revolution of 1994. In 1994, filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino (whose 1994 film Pulp Fiction won mass critical and commercial appeal and is generally regarded as one of the best films of the 90s) and Ben Stiller (people forget what a zeitgeist Reality Bites) became huge Hollywood stars and garnered significant cults of personality. Both Stiller and Tarantino have gone on to remain incredibly culturally relevant, with both men making cult films (Death Proof, The Cable Guy) as well as big, mainstream Hollywood hits (Django Unchained, Tropic of Thunder) in the interim. Somewhere along the way, Kevin Smith got left behind.
Perhaps it was due to his slacker mentality, his inability to really grow as a director or a writer, or just sheer bad luck, but Smith has never really progressed beyond the shaggy dog director of 1994’s Clerks, an immensely funny and quotable film that nonetheless typecast director Smith for the entirety of his career, so much so that he has gone back to the well multiple times (his “View Askewniverse” as well as the sequel film Clerks 2 and the proposed Clerks 3), with somewhat diminishing returns along the way. But Clerks remains a revered, cult film – and with good reason. Despite a shaky leading performance, the film oozes personality from its supporting characters, particularly in an hilarious Jeff Andrews performance and from the lovable, goofy Jay character, played by Jason Mewes (both men were amateurs, having never acted in a professional film before Clerks).
So, What Holds Up?:
Other than Mewes’ and Andersons’ solid, hilarious performances? I think the script largely works, particularly the pop culture dissection, which in 1994 must have seemed considerably fresh. In 2014, the Internet is a massive thing, and there are countless blogs (including ours!) that serve as outlets for cultural dissection. During Clerks’ time, however, the Internet did not exist in this form yet. Heck, tabbed browsing didn’t even exist. There was no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram. The dialogue in Clerks, which mostly revolved around Star Wars, the daily minutiae of working a dead end job, and frank discussions on sex and various sex acts, must have been downright shocking. The first time I watched the film, which was probably around 1999 or 2000, I can remember being a bit shocked by what was coming out of the characters’ mouths. If anything, Clerks is downright dirty in the best way.
I also feel like the black-and-white aesthetic presented by Clerks greatly holds up. Upon initial viewing, I pouted, “This is in black-and-white? That sucks!” But after actually watching the film, I thought Smith’s decision to film it like that was pure genius – it just simply works. The relationship between Dante and Randall is the best one in the film. Forget about the various love interests, Dante and Randall are where it’s at. Brian O’Halloran isn’t a great actor, but he plays the role of the put-upon schmuck fairly well, and Jeff Anderson is great at driving him nuts. I love the dynamic between them that allows Randall to consistently get Dante’s goat over and over again. The characters of Jay and Silent Bob are also great, and hadn’t yet become parodies of themselves.
And What Doesn’t Hold Up?:
Holy crap, every time Dante tucks his jeans into his boots I just want to slap him in the face with a fish. That fashion faux pas gets me every time. Jay’s haircut is also awful – he looks like he should have “It’s the mid-90s” tattooed on his head. The music doesn’t hold up as well, and some of it oddly feels out of place. The studio made the choice to add early 90s grunge rock, which I like (I imagine the bulk of the money Miramax pumped into a post-production version of Clerks was spent on music rights). But some of the grunge rock on the soundtrack has aged about as well as cottage cheese, and thus dates the film immensely.
The worst part of the film to me is probably the character of Caitlin Brea, who Dante pines for throughout the entire movie. The character is under-written and not particularly well-acted either (Lisa Spoonhauer, who plays Caitlin, has only one other credit to her name). Caitlin is built up throughout the movie as Dante pines for her, but I don’t like what is done with her character. She is also given surprisingly little screen time, and is then quickly ushered out of the film without much resolution to her character (and a throw-away line from Dante doesn’t give me enough closure on their relationship).
So, What’s the Assessment?:
Ultimately, my main issue with Clerks is that it doesn’t know if it wants to be a serious look at a day in the life of two working-class New Jersey store clerks or a bawdy romantic comedy with sitcom-y trappings. This is pretty much what has also plagued Smith’s subsequent films. Mallrats is basically Clerks set in a brightly-lit shopping mall. Chasing Amy is Clerks with a lesbian character. Dogma is… well, Dogma has not aged well (ugh, those special effects). Clerks 2 is exactly what you think it is, except this time it’s in a fast food restaurant. I’m not ruling out the prospect that Clerks 3 will be good, because I actually kind of like all of these movies a little bit. But the fact remains that Smith has shown incredibly little growth as a filmmaker over the course of a twenty-year career.
I still think Clerks is a solid little comedy. I love Jeff Anderson as Randal. He is far and away the best character in the movie. He gets the funniest lines and his anarchic spirit makes him a much more interesting character than the dour lead Dante. Clerks is available streaming on Netflix and other services, and I recommend it for a look into that 1994 indie scene. It’s just too bad that Kevin Smith didn’t mature as a filmmaker and give us something with a little more depth and maybe something with a little more important to say.