This article is part of the Notes on Failure series, which discusses interesting cinematic failures. Previously, Black ’47.
Kevin Smith has had a really weird career. He’s one of the directors I’d be least surprised for someone to mention as a key influence in getting them interested in films and filmmaking, and also one of the directors I’d be least surprised to hear mentioned in pure contempt, no explanation necessary. He seems to be more known as a generic pop culture figure of the internet at this point: he’s responsible for the worst tweet of all time, which I’m sure more people have seen than saw Tusk. He has like a hundred podcasts and mostly makes films based on episodes of those podcasts now? I don’t even know. I couldn’t watch the trailer for Yoga Hosers through to the end, but I’ll still probably go see Jay and Silent Bob Reboot in the cinema.
I like Kevin Smith a lot more than people who hate Kevin Smith. I like a lot of his early films. I think Clerks is a masterpiece. I love Dogma, a film that is legitimately important to me as an… idiosyncratic Catholic. I think Chasing Amy has become sort of misunderstood because its logline – lesbian falls in love with a man – seems pretty gross in 2019, even though watching the film, it is made clear that she was bisexual the whole time, as is every other character. I never rewatch Clerks II because I would rather just watch Clerks, but it’s legitimately pretty good, and I would watch Jeff Anderson play Randal in anything.
But then there’s Mallrats. Smith’s second film – about a bunch of goofy misadventures of some twenty-somethings in a mall – was a critical and commercial flop on release, but it became a cult hit on home video. In the VHS episode of Harris Bomberguy and Shannon Strucci’s Scanline series, Bomberguy talks about how the aesthetic differences between watching a film in a cinema vs. watching it on a television work in favour of Mallrats, as it becomes something much lower-stakes, a backdrop to you and your friends doing something else that pulls you in at the funnier parts rather than something blasted at you from all angles like it’s the most important thing in the world. “The joy of [Kevin Smith films] is in crowding round a small TV at your friend’s house and watching little people on it with no pretensions of grandiosity,” he says.
But unfortunately, even in the lowest-stakes environments – from a VHS at your friend’s house to on your laptop while you scroll through your phone – Mallrats still sucks.
- Mallrats isn’t just a bad film in comparison to Clerks, but it invites comparison to Clerks so overtly that it’s kind of impossible not to talk about it. It, of course, takes place in the same universe as Clerks and features Jay and Silent Bob, as would many of Smith’s subsequent films. But it also has plot tie-ins that make Clerks retroactively dumber. In Clerks, Dante and Randal go to an old classmate’s funeral; in Mallrats, we find out she was due to appear on a dating game show and that when someone told her the camera makes you look fatter, she did 700 laps and an embolism burst in her brain. I hate this because it affects how some of my favourite scenes in Clerks play: Randal saying their dead classmate was “twenty-two, same as us” isn’t a poignant reflection on youth and mortality if I know she died in the dumbest way possible.
- In general, the references to Clerks feel hollow and pointless at best. One of the contestants on the game show is played by Brian O’Halloran and has the same last name as Dante. At one point, the main characters go to another mall and one of them tries on a Clerks hat. It’s just kind of low-level annoying, less like the kind of small details that recur in, say, Quentin Tarantino’s films than a klaxon incessantly reminding you that Clerks also exists.
- Much more pervasive is all the stuff that feels like Clerks but worse. Mallrats makes me appreciate the accidental brilliance of Clerks even more because it’s so clearly the kind of film Clerks would have been if not for material constraints. Jason Lee plays Brodie, a slacker and a comic book geek who gets dumped by his girlfriend in the first ten minutes. He’s easily the best part of the movie, but he’s also very much a low-rent Randal from Clerks. I mean, he tells a story about his cousin Walter shoving cats up his ass, and in Clerks, Randal says his cousin Walter died sucking his own dick. They’re not exactly the same in every single way – Jeff Anderson plays Randal with an almost Zen-like acceptance of his life as it is, all deadpan wit and no motivation, whereas Lee plays Brodie with a slightly manic energy as he tries to win back his girl – but they’re close enough that it hurts Mallrats, because I’m just sitting there thinking about how I’d rather watch Clerks.
- Mallrats is somehow both incredibly conventional and a total mess. It’s both way too polished and not polished enough. Clerks is sort of structureless and aimless because it’s a slice-of-life snapshot, but Mallrats wants desperately to have a conventional story structure but is way too baggy and goofy and pointless for pull it off.
- The nominal plot of Mallrats is Brodie and his best friend TS (Jeremy London) going to the mall after being dumped by their girlfriends, Rene (Shannen Doherty) and Brandi (Claire Forlani). Brandi’s dad runs a TV dating game show, which is being filmed at the mall that day for some reason, and Brandi is going to be a contestant, much to TS’s chagrin. Brodie and TS recruit Jay and Silent Bob to help sabotage the dating game show, while they sort of bounce around getting up to hijinks.
- The problem with this plot is that it’s really hard to give a shit: the idea of a game show being filmed at a mall is so weird to me that I’m immediately on the outs with it, but sure, whatever, it’s a movie. But I don’t care at all about Brodie and TS getting back with their girlfriends, because both of their girlfriends are really boring and they probably shouldn’t get back together. The film’s structure puts getting the couples back together at the emotional centre – it’s literally the film’s climax – and doesn’t do any work to back it up. Like, I’m sure Brodie and TS both like having girlfriends! But there’s very little reason why Rene and Brandi aren’t just interchangeable with any woman of the required age and attractiveness level.
- The other problem with the plot is that there’s so much of it. It’s so convoluted, and involves literally every character in the movie. Jay and Silent Bob are going to destroy the game show’s stage, which means they’ll need to take out the security guards, except what actually happens is they take out two of the dating game contestants and then Brodie and TS take their place, even though their established plan was to prevent the show from going ahead. I think the reason the plan changes is because a three-nippled psychic at a different mall gave TS some vague romantic advice. Silent Bob hangs upside down in the scaffolding so he can put a sex tape in a VCR. Is there a zipline at some point? I feel like there probably is. There’s a proposal and a declaration of love and an arrest. The stuff I like best in Kevin Smith’s movies is the stuff that makes Clerks his best film: scenes of characters sitting around talking about nothing. Mallrats has some of those, sure, but there’s so much plot around them that they’re suffocated. Mallrats isn’t a hangout movie, and that’s ultimately to the film’s detriment.
- It probably does not speak well of me that two of my favourite songs of all time are on the Mallrats soundtrack: ‘Web in Front’ by Archers of Loaf and ‘Susanne’ by Weezer. I kind of sincerely love the Mallrats soundtrack. Its catalogue of mid-1990s alt-rock makes me nostalgic for a time I don’t remember. There’s a lot I could say about how the songs are used in the movie itself, mostly how it seems like a waste to use ‘Susanne’ as a closing number when it’s almost tailor-made to kick in when a guy sees the girl he likes but is too chickenshit to talk to from across a crowded room. But as well as a song soundtrack, Mallrats has, of all things, a score, and it’s used extensively. It is quite possibly the most generic 1990s comedy score I’ve ever heard. It would not be out of place scoring Baby’s Day Out. It’s extremely lame and extremely boring and extremely dated, and I hate it. The score, more than anything else, exemplifies what was lost in the transition from Clerks’ no-budget grit to Mallrats’ studio-backed mainstream.
- The term “edgy” has become a pejorative, because the internet is rife with dumb boys trafficking in blunt-force shock humour that’s basically unbearable. But I think there is such a thing as good “edgy” humour, and that great jokes can be made about pretty much any topic. I’ve written about it before and I’ll write about it again. Mallrats is a weird case, though, because it’s got a couple of bad jokes that would today be described pejoratively as edgy, and yet the whole film is almost pathologically edgeless. Its forays into bad taste somehow do nothing to counter the blandness of the overall production.
- Anyway, the first bad joke is this: the character of Tricia, played by a twenty-year-old Renee Humphrey, is fifteen. She’s writing a book about male sexual prowess and so slept with a lot of guys for research purposes. Brodie calls her “Trish the Dish”. This is obviously gross, and the film seems largely unaware of the grossness of it. Brodie’s point of view seems to also be the film’s: that she is an attractive, sexually experienced woman, rather than a child.
- This ties into the film’s other bad joke. Ben Affleck plays the film’s villain, Shannon Hamilton from the mall’s Fashionable Male store, who has started dating Brodie’s girl and by all accounts wants to fuck her “In a very uncomfortable place.” (“What, like in a Volkswagen?”) Part of the film’s climax involves showing everyone the tape Tricia made of her sexual encounter with Shannon which causes him to get arrested. Leaving aside the roughly thousand questions I have about this, it leads to a really bad joke about Shannon being raped in prison. The running gag about anal finally pays off, I guess? It is truly the laziest, grossest kind of rape joke, one that treats the idea of a man being raped as inherently funny.
- Stan Lee has a cameo. It’s excruciatingly long. Most of that time it’s so cliché it’s painful – Stan Lee tells Brodie that he always regretted some lost love, which causes Brodie to realise he should get Rene back – and the reveal that TS had paid him off to say that stuff doesn’t save it. Stan Lee was many things, but not an especially talented actor, and his line deliveries are largely stilted and awkward. And it’s the key protagonist-has-a-revelation scene! Jason Lee does his best, but there’s so little to work with.
- Hbomberguy’s idea that Mallrats works in the low-stakes environment of television misses something crucial: something being better in one environment over another doesn’t mean much if its “better” still isn’t very good. Mallrats is a bizarre film to become a cult classic, not because it’s bad, but because it’s bad in the way that any bad studio comedy from the 1990s is bad. It’s so conventional and bland that it somehow manages to blow my mind with how not mind-blowing it is. It is just an assembly line of clichés. I hate it.
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