Kevin Smith's filmmaking career has been an interesting tragedy. His filmography is littered with inconsistent titles. Dogma, Red State, and Zack & Miri Make a Porno are so wildly different from one another in their methods of storytelling, filmmaking, and character development that one would think they came from separate young filmmakers if it weren't for the stark dialogue that all three exhibit. Most filmmakers find a niche, style, or rhythm in their approach and then seek to expand upon it. Kevin Smith has done the opposite. He tries new things with each of his films. Almost every time he does this, he fails. Never before has a brilliant artist found so many ways to be a bad filmmaker, and I say this as a fan.
Notice that I used the word brilliant. I don't exaggerate. Kevin Smith is brilliant. I don't consider the majority of his films to be total failures. Anyone who goes into a film like Jersey Girl expecting something more than what it is--a schmaltzy, cheesy, cliche-ridden romantic comedy featuring every crippling trope that a genre film could contain--is going to be disappointed. Though I don't consider most of what he made after 1997 to be particularly good, I appreciate his renegade approach. He remains stone-faced in his unflinching resistance to outside interference. He also seems like a nice guy, based on all his interviews, commentaries, and podcasts. His genuine nature makes it easy to forgive the existence of Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back. Each of his comedies have made me laugh, or at least the ones that I've seen. I have not seen Yoga Hosers, nor do I have much interest since it already took me long enough to recover from Strange Brew. There is one film of his, though, that may be the most important film of his career. It's a film that changed filmmaking in ways that many will never realize. The allusive, astounding, and puzzling 1995 comedy, Mallrats.
Smith, like Quentin Tarantino, burst into the mid-90s indie scene with a picture that clicked with audiences. 1994's Clerks was, and always will be, timely and profound in its witty exploration of the American working class world. The film was rife with humorous quotes, sprinkled with hip insight, and displayed a level of human desolation that few independent films, even today, could ever hope to touch. Watching it today, I am still startled by its realism and its humor. It wouldn't be unreasonable for the average filmgoer to be intrigued by what he potentially had to offer next. Would he be another Tarantino and have his sophomore effort be something ambitious, sprawling, and brilliant, like Pulp Fiction? Would he take a greater risk and become a Steven Soderbergh or Jim Jarmusch? Well, he certainly did do something risky. He made Mallrats.
The film follows Brodie Bruce (Jason Lee) and TS Quint (Jeremy London). Quint's plan to propose to girlfriend, Brandi (Clare Forlani) are swayed by Julie Dwyer's death at the YMCA pool-- or, if you watch the Director's Extended Cut DVD, an accidental near-assassination-- and she has to be a contestant on her father's(Michael Rooker) game show. TS's insensitivity toward the situation, which stems from the knowledge he has of her conniving father's low opinion of him, causes Brandi to, understandably, ditch him. Meanwhile, Brodie prefers to play NHL All-Star Hockey on the Sega Saturn instead of taking his girlfriend, Rene (Shannon Doherty), out to breakfast. She promptly breaks up with him, citing boredom and dissatisfaction in his aimlessness, in the form of a letter. Brodie and TS decide to cheer themselves up by hanging out at the mall. So, for those who saw Clerks, the prospect is exciting. Clerks was, quite literally, a film about a couple of guys standing around in a convenience store complaining about their lives. It was entertaining as hell. The mall is an ideal location for this kind of film. Imagine the level of social and societal commentary that could be explored with such a concept! Two guys walking around a mall, complaining about their girlfriends? Sign me up!
Well, in the end, that's not exactly what the audience gets. There is plenty of dialogue, mostly about comic book superheroes and bitter reflections on various associates. Instead of insight, however, we get clumsy, zany action sequences involving keystone cops and superhero utility equipment. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, there is almost no reason for these sequences to be in this film. I say this, not because Smith's greatest--possibly only-- strength is in dialogue, but because, for a film about people hanging out at a mall, the film is a little complicated. Our heroes interact with a variety of colorful characters, the funniest of which is Willam (Ethan Suplee), who spends the entirety of the film staring at a "magic eye" poster trying to find a sailboat. They also run into Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith) and collaborate with them in an scheme to destroy the stage set that Brandi's father set up for his game show. There's a subplot involving Rene hooking up with a womanizing alpha male, Shannon (Ben Affleck) who, in one scene, threatens Brodie and warns him of his plans to violate his ex-girlfriend. There are some misplaced attempts to take out a mall security guard, complete with Star Wars references for good measure. We also meet a couple more female characters (Renee Humphrey and Joey Lauren Adams), both of whom are interesting enough to have their own films. Marvel writer, Stan Lee makes a cameo. There's also a psychic, but enough about that.
So, in the end, this is Kevin Smith's first attempt to make a studio picture. Remember when I called Smith brilliant? Well, he is brilliant. He's not a brilliant director or writer, however. His brilliance exists entirely in his ability to write dialogue. Kevin Smith knows how to shoot a film, but generally doesn't know how to do much more than that. He lacks the ability to use the technique of visual storytelling to his advantage. This can be done effectively in a film like Clerks. It can even enhance a film like Chasing Amy, his best film. That's why his strongest films tend to be amount to little more than people standing around and talking. Here, in Mallrats, this particular directing flaw is at its most obvious. Mallrats lacks any sense of visual cohesion of coordination beyond the occasional long take or stylized jump cut. We can gather the fact that the film takes place in the span of a couple of hours, but nothing feels urgent. The plot of this film eventually dissolves into TS trying to win back Brandi, yet the way it unfolds feels so unrealistically coordinated and incidental that it's tough to even take it seriously. It feels likes mindless escapism, which is the opposite of what Clerks was. Even the cinematically cheap guerrilla presentation of the hockey game sequence in Clerks held more suspense than anything in Mallrats.
Sadly, the film, after being released in the fall of 1995, was panned by critics and flopped at the box office. One cannot help but wonder what it was that drove Kevin Smith to direct such a film. To go from making something so odd and entertaining, to making something that is so oddly entertaining. Those of us who were lucky enough to miss the cutesy teenage melodrama of Saved By the Bell would got this film instead, which functions as a middle finger to Beverly Hills 90210. What I'm saying probably makes the film sound more interesting than it is, and perhaps it was more interesting at one point in time. Watching it today, it's easy to write it off as little more than an exercise in dated pop culture references, disgusting humor, and missed opportunity. Upon closer inspection, however, I've come to the conclusion that Kevin Smith was onto something. This picture is the very definition of the phrase "cult-classic". It developed a following when it was released on VHS, and it was a strong one. For everyone I know who was a teenager in the 90s or anyone who had an older brother in the 90s, half of them had a copy of Mallrats. My eternally young at heart father also had a VHS copy, and, at the age of twelve, he showed it to me. I loved it because I saw the film at just the right time. It was in late-2001, which as we all know, was a bad time in America to be a middle schooler. I was also the only kid in my class who admitted to loving Star Wars. At that age, liking Star Wars or having comic books wasn't really considered "cool" or even "normal". Today, with Marvel films and Star Wars being such a success, such a thing seems unfathomable, but the world really was that different in the early 2000s.
Mallrats functioned as a piece of filmmaking that was meant to click with those of us who played video games before it was cool to play video games. Mallrats was made for the outcasts of the 90s who wanted a crude comedy to call their own. Those of us who loved comic books and superheroes, and hated game shows and teenage soap opera. When I say outcasts, I mean "outcasts". Stoners, loners, geeks, and even queers. Kevin Smith was ahead of the curve in confronting homophobia, and, as a young, closeted homosexual, I have been very touched by Smith's repeated acknowledgment of the gay community in his films. Upon watching this film, today, those memories of being an outcast are still very much a part of who I am, and I am filled with nostalgia when I think of how much things have changed. Mallrats is very much a reminder of that social status. Brodie, a brash, twenty-something loser, has no interest, whatsoever, in planning out a future for himself. He lives, day-to-day, trying to enjoy his pitiful existence. He is, in essence, a cultural hero. He represents those of us who had no interest in being pressured to fit in with what was expected. TS, on the other hand, is a college kid who is madly in love and deeply troubled by Brandi's rejection. He is the sensitive boy who many of us felt ashamed of being. These two outcasts are very different from one another, but they listen to each other, despite their differences. place it a cut above many of the teen comedies that came out at the time.
Despite the obvious weaknesses, I also can't help but ignore how Smith's plot handling works better than many similar comedies that came out at the time. When I compare this to other 90s teen films, such as Empire Records, Jawbreaker, and Hackers, I feel more invested in what's going on in Mallrats. Even today, I feel that the storytelling here is just a lot more concise. I think that has everything to do with how Smith never allows his characters to turn into caricatures or stereotypes. Compare, for example, the duel break-up scenes that occur at the start of the film. Both Rene and Brandi have genuinely good reasons for breaking up with Brodie and TS that don't feel forced. We also understand, from the offset, that both Brodie and TS are flawed human beings, and we gather this from both what they say and how they react to being broken up with. The end result rings a lot more true than, for example, in She's All That when Rachel Leigh Cook realizes that Freddie Prinze Jr had been lying to her. Do their characters sit down and work out their problems like the two rationally-minded people we were led to believe they were? No, instead they launch into hysterics. Kevin Smith may not be much of a filmmaker, but I have yet to see him write a character who behaves contrary to how they are written. Even the infamous Jersey Girl demonstrated this concept to a tee. This was something that teen comedies hadn't quite mastered in the mid-90s, making Smith ahead of his time in this department.
It's also worth mentioning that this film's handling of pop culture is quite interesting. Much of the humor makes sly references to things that diehard fans would be familiar with, though this isn't something Smith hasn't done before. I do appreciate that comic book writer Stan Lee makes a cameo in this film before it became a trope of modern day Marvel films. The inclusion of Michael Rooker as the villain before he was in the Guardians of the Galaxy films is charming too. Mallrats manages to tap into this kind of world before it became what it is now. Geek culture is now popular and at the forefront of the cultural entertainment spectrum. Game of Thrones is evolving into a phenomenon that has the potential to be bigger than Star Trek. Super hero films continue to make bank the box office. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was the biggest moviegoing success of the year. All of these things are what makes Mallrats such an odd time capsule, because, in the world of Mallrats, this is outsider culture. I think the biggest problem with this film is that it was made for an audience that no longer exists. Malls are a thing of the past. Mall culture is dead. Hell, it was practically dead when this film came out. That's what made it so funny. Now, malls are like a sad joke. Kids don't retreat to the mall anymore when they want to spend time with friends. Now, they retreat to social media. One could say, "well not everyone uses social media", but I'd say the majority does, and that's what's important. We didn't all have the mall back then, but most kids did. That's why it made sense to go there. Well, that, and also because the sale items were cool and the cheese samples were to die for.
Because the characters in this film are entertaining, it's easy enough to care about what happens to them. In the end, it ends up being a pretty harmless film. It's pure escapism. Again, the opposite of Clerks. Many people can relate to young love, and, at its core, I suppose that's what Mallrats is about. The beautiful stupidity of young love. It's a romantic comedy, designed for nerds, geeks, and slackers. Or, at least, it was. Now, it has become a film that didn't get the appreciation that it deserves when it was released, and, though it found an audience for a temporary amount of time, it is a film that will forever be lost on future generations. It is a film that, sadly, missed its chance to represent something bigger than itself. It became little more than a punchline in the grand scheme of things, even to Kevin Smith. When I view the film today, I can't make heads or tails of it. I am entertained by it, but it's not a good film. It was ahead of its time, yet it lacks any relevance today and will never hold relevance again. Mallrats is dated to a lethal degree, and that's the most tragic thing about it.