Monday, November 14, 2011
Reeling Backward: "Mallrats" (1995)
I have finally completed my Kevin Smith oeuvre. Somehow I had missed "Mallrats," his sophomore effort that is generally regarded as his worst film. Although they may not be counting "Red State," which I hear is the challenger to the throne.
Smith is a multi-pronged artist who's almost as well-known these days for his live stage performances, "An Evening with Kevin Smith," his comic book writing and considerable pop-culture presence as his movies. He hasn't had a hit movie since ... well, ever. He tends to make lower-budget films, $30 million or less, that gross a little more than they cost.
Quality is another matter. I don't think Smith has made an out-and-out good movie since 1999's "Dogma," and even that was a bit of a mess narratively. His ultra-indie debut, "Clerks," was a brash and brainy exploration of mid-90s slacker culture, a portrait of my generation just as it was exiting college and finding its prospects meager -- not unlike today's kids.
And then there was "Chasing Amy," Smith's third film and masterpiece. I won't spend our time burying "Amy" in praises, other than to say it seems with "Mallrats" Smith was building up to that wonderfully edgy take on modern relationships and stunted youth. Many of the same actors appear, including Jason Lee, a professional skateboarder with zero acting experience who Smith cast in this movie despite resistance from the studio hacks.
That's how I prefer to think of "Mallrats" -- as Smith honing his storytelling skills and gift for sharp characters in preparation for other, better work. Whereas "Clerks" exists as its own piece, "Mallrats" is mere throat-clearing for "Chasing Amy" and "Dogma."
The plot is a lame excuse for a whole bunch of hanging around at the Eden Prairie Mall in Minnesota. Two college-age guys are dumped by their girlfriends, and spend a day trying to win them back ... after a fashion.
For Brodie (Lee), a slacker who lives in his mom's basement and plays Sega video games as a vocation, this involves insulting nearly anyone and everyone he encounters. Brodie is a walking cauldron of bile spewing all over everything in its path, but he's also wickedly funny while doing it.
His ex is Rene, played by Shannen Doherty. Doherty was a hot commodity coming off the "Beverly Hills, 90210" show, and in fact received top billing in the film despite having a rather small part. Smith's female characters in his early films tend to be underwritten, until he cast his real-life girlfriend, Joey Lauren Adams, as the lead in "Chasing Amy."
Adams also has a small part here, memorably being shown topless for a split second when drug dealer/mystic Silent Bob (played by Smith himself) smashes through the door of her store changing booth.
Claire Forlani plays the other ex-girlfriend, Brandi, who has just dumped T.S. (Jeremy London). Unlike Brodie, T.S. attends college and seems to have a plan in life, even if at this point it mostly seems to be playing Brodie's wing-man.
Jason Mewes returns as the other half of the Jay and Silent Bob team, still peddling drugs and hitting on women who don't respond. Together they act as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the action and jumping into the fray when it suits them.
Ben Affleck also turns up as the villain, the manager of the Fashionable Male store named Shannon, who puts the moves on Rene. Ethan Suplee plays Willam, a stoner who can't see the sailboat in one of those 3-D paintings, despite an epic attempt. Stan Lee makes a cameo, lending advice to comic book uber-fan Brodie.
Michael Rooker plays Brandi's dad, the host of a low-rent television dating show that's supposed to shoot inside the mall, with his daughter as the semi-willing contestant. Brodie and T.S. enlist Jay and Silent Bob to ruin it during live taping.
I enjoyed Priscilla Barnes, the former "Three's Company" star, as a topless fortune teller with three nipples. I suspect Smith only cast her because he, like me, had a boyhood crush on her and endeavored to see her naked. No complaints here.
I also liked the little touch of naming the wordless, scary head of security La Fours -- a nod to the barely-seen lawman who chases the main characters in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." They share a white straw hat and an imposing reputation.
Smith's strength as a filmmaker has always been creating distinctive characters, and working with actors to make them even more so. And, of course, crackling dialogue with lots of funny throwaway lines and quips.
Tying it all together into a satisfying story has always been his challenge, though, and he fails to make the sale with "Mallrats."
2 stars out of four