(Kevin Smith, USA, 1995)


I was a fan of Kevin Smith's low-budget debut Clerks (1994), with its rough mixture of minimalism, vulgarity and lovable human eccentricity. Better resourced on his second film, Smith tries to blend the proletarian humour of Clerks with the pastel colours and beautiful people of an episode of Beverly Hills 90210. The rather uncertain and variable result is Mallrats.

Like Clerks, Mallrats follows the dissolute days and nights of two friends, T.S. (Jeremy London) and Brodie (Jason Lee). Both of them bust up with their girlfriends at the start of the story, and spend the rest of their time at the mall concocting fanciful schemes of revenge and reconciliation.

Mallrats is at its best when its characters just talk, trading quasi-screwball volleys about various base bodily functions. Many low jokes at the expense of smarmy yuppies and a fascistic mall entertainment manager (Michael Rooker) are less sparkling. And the film's attempts at non-verbal, burlesque humour are extremely weak.

There is an unmistakable artlessness – a flat, awkward, ugly quality – that permeates much current American cinema of an independent persuasion. Hal Hartley turns such artlessness into a distinctive style, but Mallrats mostly looks like a poorly realised telemovie. Smith dedicates this opus to the grand, raunchy teen movies of the '80s (such as Sixteen Candles, 1984), but he has much to learn about what made those films fire.

I could forgive Clerks its outrageous sexism – not every viewer did – because that film had such tremendous energy, and a certain guttersnipe charm. In Mallrats the sexism remains but the energy and charm have fallen out considerably. Tellingly, it is only the guys from Clerks (including a pretty boring character played by Smith himself) who come up for recycling here.

But these judgments may be too harsh, considering that I laughed almost continuously throughout Mallrats. One thing is certain: the film's constant string of pop culture references (everything from Star Wars to the Magic Eye craze) is spot-on and hilarious. And that maestro of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee, supplies the best celebrity cameo seen on screen since Love and Other Catastrophes (1996).

MORE Smith: Chasing Amy, Jersey Girl

© Adrian Martin August 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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