You know how when you graduate high school and go to college and take that one psychology or philosophy class freshman year that opens your mind to all sorts of new theories and ideas, and you now think you’re the smartest you’ve ever been, and probably ever will be—you’ve reached your intellectual peak—but then you look back in ten years only to realize that you actually didn’t know anything back then and were actually still pretty dumb? That’s the dialogue in Kevin Smith’s earliest films, blending self-aggrandized sentiments with college humor and an obsession with fetishes. Compared to Smith’s debut Clerks, his 1995 follow-up, Mallrats, doesn’t quite inundate itself entirely with these long didactic chunks of dialogue—although there are still quite a few—but still gives us roughly the same amount of the college humor and an obsession with fetishes.
The story revolves around two best friends, T.S. (Jeremy London) and Brodie (Jason Lee), who have each just broken up with their girlfriends and go to the mall to decompress and think. Coincidentally, T.S.’s ex, Brandi (Claire Forlani), is going to be a contestant on a dating game show, which is being filmed live from the mall. Meanwhile, Brodie’s ex, Rene (Shannen Doherty), is also at the mall, getting hit on by Brodie’s arch nemesis, Shannon (Ben Affleck), a manager of a clothing store who hates him because he always goes to the mall to hang out instead of to shop.
And boy, does he. Brodie knows all the regulars and their stories. He goes to the mall like businessmen go to the bar. Except he only ever buys two things: food and comic books. Brodie is a comic book-obsessed slacker who still lives with his parents and plays video games all day. T.S., on the other hand, is a college student who had been preparing to propose to Brandi before she dumped him. He plans to get her back.
The similarities between Clerks and Mallrats are obvious for those who really care to look, even down to their dual protagonists: T.S. and Brodie are essentially drawn the same as Dante and Randal from Clerks, with slight insignificant differences. However, Mallrats has a big upgrade in the talents on screen. In attempting to get a bunch of relative unknowns, Smith kinda struck gold a couple times. Lee, in his first named acting role, is objectively amazing and absolutely carries this movie. He understands his character’s intricate rants and actually seems to feel the dialogue, adding multiple layers to it. He has the charisma and delivery of a comedy veteran and is so locked in and in-tune with his own comedic voice. Another brief glimpse is Affleck, who’s only had a couple of roles prior to this one, and beams with charm in his limited, albeit significant, role here with such an obvious presence on screen.
Mall culture in the ’80s and ’90s was real, and sadly Mallrats is one of the few films that really explores this hectically ubiquitous culture with the love and admiration that Smith has for shopping malls and their importance to his generation. Here, the filmmaker explores his milieu pretty well, immersing us in this shopping mall without us feeling like we’ve stepped into a staged production. His downfall only comes when he doesn’t believe that his milieu is enough.
Despite the motive being “love,” the stakes and execution of the motive are never quite spelled out enough for the audience—or even for the characters really. Much like Clerks, Mallrats is episodic, yet this one relies a bit too heavily on its macro plot than simply showing us more slice-of-life and exploring this mall culture in a way that I strongly believe it wants to—and may even intend to. Take a movie like Empire Records, also released in 1995, that’s very similar to Mallrats in intent. However, instead of a mall, it deals with the goings-on of characters inside a record shop. The stakes of the main plot are much higher with the store at risk of going out of business, and yet the personal affairs of these employees and patrons are never made to feel more important than they are—and still they’re much more urgent than the ones T.S. and Brodie are dealing with.
I honestly think Smith’s flippant attitude could have still worked with weightier vignettes, but it’s the writer/director’s failure to recognize the perspective of his film that affects its impact the most. Perhaps with the benefit of hindsight the movie could have been as special as it very well should have been.
Rooted in comic book enthusiasm and pop culture zeitgeist, Mallrats seems to be aware of the era it’s living in, but only as far as the characters’ (and the writer’s) expounded musings can take them. However, the film’s biggest misstep is in finding its emotional center, relying too much on the love-chasing than the life lessons being learned in the process. Mallrats doesn’t have as much of Smith’s obviously-pent-up pontifications, but as much as we can compare the two, this isn’t Clerks. It’s not just a glorified screenplay; it actually tries to be a real movie.
Where Clerks perfectly contrasts its intelligence with dirty humor, Mallrats leans more on the latter while bringing the IQ down to a more tolerable level. The film doesn’t always have a lot to say and isn’t necessarily as fulfillingly exploratory as it ought to be, but it’s an effective love letter to the idea of the mall serving as something other than a place to shop, and it’s a lot of fun in the process.