“Like the back of a Volkswagen?”
The term ‘sophomore slump’ was thrown around a lot back in 1995 where Kevin Smith‘s Mallrats is concerned and I can agree with the sentiment almost two decades later. After the astronomical success of his debut Clerks, it’s unsurprising that a studio would take a gamble on banking profits while attached to the writer/director’s coattails. But all the extra money—six million that Smith never understood the need to have—and hands in the pot did was risk behind the scenes issues and a lot of unnecessary fighting to keep his vision whole. So when a critical drubbing preceded the film’s DOA release, the best it could hope for was the insane cult following it’s acquired in the interim. Possibly due to escalated hype and expectations, I sadly still find it more or less a mess.
If nothing else, however, the film provided the learning experience needed to push forward and direct what I believe are his two best—Chasing Amy and Dogma. Where a shoestring budget, handheld camera, and buddies at a convenience store earned him the fame and notoriety he has so effortlessly turned into an empire of fandom, working with producer James Jacks allowed him to crossover and see what really happens on a set. While the end result may prove how Smith will always be an amazing writing talent if not a marginal directing one, the simple fact his ability to find great performances later shows how Mallrats was key to his evolution. Whether seen as Clerks in a mall or a buzzed about “smart Porky’s“, it’s charm and worth is bigger than its box office failure.
Either way the acting is pretty atrocious. An opening scene with Claire Forlani (Brandi) and Jeremy London (TS) provides the film’s first break-up while channeling the acting prowess of Dazed and Confused‘s Wiley Wiggins with awkward facial/hand ticks to express exasperation in the process. Pair these two with Shannen Doherty‘s (Rene) unfortunately rushed line readings and you have the perfect embodiment of Smith’s bitingly accurate commentary on slacker culture being butchered. Any sense of naturalism is absent and everything spoken loses its impact. This is a novice director trying hard to get the joke out without paying enough attention to its delivery. And while I’d dismiss this as the unavoidable price of bringing a unique vision to the big screen had the production cost as little as Clerks, I can’t after learning they had exponentially more at their disposal.
Centered around two best friends finding themselves bachelors once again, Brodie’s (Jason Lee) manchild, shirker of responsibility and TS’s underachiever with infinite potential decide to hit the local mall and work out their emotions. While a sanctuary for the former, this consumerist establishment is far from the latter’s idea of an afternoon rather spent wallowing in self-pity at home. Crossing paths with scorned exes and an eccentric cast of creatures milling about, they wade through small town gossip in order to understand where they went wrong. Brodie yearns to remind Rene why she stayed with his basement dwelling comic geek in the first place and TS desperately searches for the no quit attitude necessary to make his dreams of marrying Brandi a reality.
Without stopping there, they must also contend with womanizing brute Shannon (Ben Affleck) and Brandi’s unsavory TV producer father Svenning (Michael Rooker) before achieving their goals. They enlist the troublesome duo of Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) to sabotage the rip-off “Dating Game” live telecast about to begin with Brandi in its hot seat and acquire romantic advice from fifteen-year old sex researcher Tricia (Renée Humphrey), friend Gwen (Joey Lauren Adams), and superhero maestro Stan Lee himself while getting themselves into a ton of sticky situations. Add in the quiet rage of Ethan Suplee‘s Willam, the stoic authority of Sven-Ole Thorsen‘s LaFours, and the breasts of Priscilla Barnes‘ Ivannah and you’ve got a circus the likes of which only a mall can provide.
In grand Smith fashion come a ton of Star Wars homage, intellectual conversation concerning Superman’s sperm’s womb-destroying power, and a sprinkling of nudity and poo jokes. Rooker appears to be having a blast with his over-the-top quasi-villainy; a cameo from Brian O’Halloran helps cement the film’s place in the View Askewniverse; and the oneliners by all create a memorable experience many find enough to overcome its other glaring limitations. I’m sure the script reads with the hilarity Smith sought, but the cast simply doesn’t do it justice. And while this is in part due to the director’s inability to project his voice through them, the fact Jason Lee and Jason Mewes excel shows fault lies with the actors too.
Mewes fight tooth and nail just to get in front of the camera as the studio tried to replace him with Seth Green and Lee came in fresh from a pro skateboarding career with bit parts on TV. It could be their raw energy and absence of training providing a much-needed authenticity or perhaps their easy rapport with Smith that has spanned the director’s entire career. Mallrats was the beginning of this fruitful relationship joining forces with Affleck to find immense success afterwards. Glimpses of what’s to come are seen on this enjoyable ride, but whatever the hordes of diehard fans see as genius is unfortunately lost on me. I’ll just continue enjoying it as an integral stepping-stone towards the often-disputed greatness of one of Hollywood’s most entertaining voices.