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Revisiting the Kevin Smith library: 'Mallrats'

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Emily Rowley and Bill Hanstock have decided to re-watch the entire Kevin Smith oeuvre. Do we still love the smell of commerce in the morning?

You can find our review of "Clerks" here.

Bill: As we barreled along in our journey heading into "Mallrats" (long the "cult"-iest of this cult director's films), one of the things I did NOT expect was a severe drop-off in quality of acting, right from the get-go. In part, this is due to the directing of the film and the on-set rewrites (both of which we'll get to in a bit), but Kevin Smith just moved from "credit card debt" to Universal by way of Gramercy, for the love of god. There was a casting director. These are actual, professional actors. And almost to a person, they're abysmal at what they're attempting to do here.

Part of this cringe-worthy assortment of acting chops (or lack thereof) is the too-clever-for-its-own-good dialogue, which is somehow ramped up from the faults we discussed when we took a look at "Clerks." Shannon Doherty would probably never say any of the things she's tasked with saying here. Jeremy London has possibly never used ANY words before. Claire Forlani is just focused with laser-like precision on holding her American accent and any Smith dialogue that happens to tumble out of her mouth seems like a happy accident.

I had very, very fond memories of "Mallrats," as do a lot of people, but much of this film, separated from a haze of nostalgia or remembering lines or scenes out of context, is pretty unbearable.

But while we're just focused on the acting performances for the time being, this film rests squarely on the shoulders of two actors/characters: Jason Lee and Jason Mewes. Lee, of course, was a revelation. He's the reason everyone loves this movie and this movie is largely the reason why nobody doesn't love Jason Lee. His charisma and ease is off the charts, even if his character and dialogue seem a lot less comfortable than you probably remember. His character is also much, much more of a shithead than you remember. But he's great. He's the first person in the film who believes, understands and commits to his character and when he finally pops up, delivering stuff like his "Breakfast, shmreakfast" line, you get what the whole movie is shooting for but often falls short of attaining.

Even better is Mewes, whom Universal famously wanted to replace with Seth Green. If Lee's lines sound the least-forced of anyone's in the movie, Mewes' sound the most NATURAL. And they damn well should, since the part was written for Mewes to play himself. He knocks it out of the park and his performance in Mallrats is 100 percent the reason why "Jay and Silent Bob" ever became a thing in the first place. And a warranted thing. Mewes is entertaining as hell and a sheer romp. The "blueprint" sections (as well as the line "Silent Bob stole the schematics from some foolish carpenter") are so great, you wish the rest of the movie was that light and freewheeling. And maybe that's what makes "Clerks: The Animated Series" so great: it's just stick figures with some comfortable-as-hell voice performances behind them.

What did you thing about the acting in the film? Did it hit you as quickly as it hit me? What was the first thing that struck you, good or bad, about "Mallrats?"

Emily: When we reviewed "Clerks," I took more of an issue than you with the overwritten dialogue. So interestingly, I actually disagree that the dialogue is worse in this one. Granted, there are still PLENTY of clunky and unnatural lines in the script here. But that community theater element that we touched on before seems largely absent.

With two notable exceptions.

Because HOO BOY that first scene with T.S. and Brandi is just absolutely godawful. London, as the ostensible everyman, gets stuck with a lot of the worst lines because that's how Kevin Smith conveys that a character is clever. The problem is that Jeremy London isn't convincing as a clever man. He's barely convincing as a human being. So every time he opens his mouth we in the audience can see the wheels spinning. Forlani doesn't fare much better. There is a moment in that first scene where, in an attempt to convey...stress, maybe? She kind of shrugs her shoulders, TAKES A FULL SECOND PAUSE, and then puts her hand to her forehead with all the naturalness of a silent movie buffoon who has just realized he's been bamboozled. I wrote down, "Claire Forlani is ACTING!!!" in my notes and then threw my notebook across the room.

Those two are by far the worst offenders. Doherty is kind of on the bubble. Not all of her lines hit, but I actually think she mostly nails the "crying in the bathroom" speech. But Ben Affleck, Michael Rooker, Joey Lauren Adams (pretty much), hell even Stan Lee all acquit themselves admirably. Obviously everything Jason Lee does in the movie remains brilliant, even in a film that is largely...not brilliant. It's almost as if his lack of acting experience prior to this movie works in his favor. He's not struggling to make the dialogue sound natural, he just runs with it. As a result, that too-clever-for-its-own-good element that you mentioned becomes a character quirk for Brodie. You believe he actually speaks that way. So I don't think the writing got worse; I think that the addition of professional actors only served to put those who couldn't handle Smith's writing into sharper focus.

It's interesting that you bring up Jason Mewes (who I agree is delightful), because one of the things that really struck me about Mallrats is how transformed Jay and Silent Bob are here. In "Clerks" they were slightly unseemly drug dealers hanging out by a convenience store. Here, they've been transformed into cartoonish but lovable doofuses; the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the Eden Prairie mall. That's not a criticism, because so much of what still works in the movie is the two of them. But it is indicative of the larger change from the character driven black humor of "Clerks," to a more narrative screwball comedy. It sounds like you may have liked this one less than I did. Do you think that shift in tone has caused "Mallrats" to age more poorly than "Clerks" has?

Bill: Yeah, I think the shift in tone is a big part of it, but a much bigger part of it is the shift in context and expectation. When we re-watched "Clerks," we were struck by its surprisingly cinematic aesthetic; by its artistry. "Mallrats," by comparison, is like watching a film student try to figure out, on the fly, how to make a studio film. Which is precisely what IS happening with this film.

Kevin Smith, like all of us probably would, double-clutched when he graduated from "fuck around and make a talky arthouse movie with my friends" to "oh shit Universal is bankrolling this; I'd better make it look like a capital-M Movie." Smith (as in all things) has been very forthcoming about the whys and wherefores of this movie and has said many times that Universal more or less wanted him to deliver a "Porky's" for a new generation. They wanted a slick teen comedy; they wanted Seth Green, for god's sakes. There are so many instances when watching this film where it's clear Smith is trying as hard as he can to make a slick, raunchy studio comedy, but doesn't really know where to begin or how to shoot what he's trying to do. You can see it when Silent Bob "flies" to try and pull out the pin in the stage: a profile shot of Smith being pushed on a dolly, cutting to a POV shot of someone lazily pushing the camera toward the pin in question. That's a small example, but one that's indicative of the directorial growing pains Smith is experiencing with this movie.

Smith wanted to be a filmmaker because he saw "Slacker" and a light bulb went off: "Holy shit, THIS is considered a movie? I can make this!" He did it with "Clerks." He made the movie he wanted to make and his inner arthouse auteur couldn't help but bleed through the frame. (I would argue that, all around, "Clerks" is a better movie than "Slacker," but that's neither here nor there.) Suddenly, for his second go-round, he's basically being asked -- by a company with a huge profile and a big bankroll -- to make a dick and fart movie the kiddies will love. I anticipate our re-watch of "Chasing Amy" (involving the popularity of Holden and Banky's comic book) will reveal a lot of reflexive angst and commentary on going mainstream before you're ready.

I think you absolutely nailed it when you said that the talent level merely throws Smith's material into starker relief. When I watch "Mallrats" through a filmmaker's eye in 2015, I see a guy reaching to try and make a lot of people happy, while writing jokes that 20-something Smith thought were pretty funny in order to keep himself entertained. Smith ended up being a much better overall filmmaker, but it's pretty difficult to watch him learning on the job like this.

Do you happen to know about the original beginning, the reshoots, etc.? Does any part of the movie seem particularly disjointed or excessively unnecessary to you?

Emily: I wasn't aware of any behind the scenes troubles, no. In fact, thinking back I actually watched this movie well before "Clerks" (with my mom, no less). So when I initially watched it I had no context for any of this stuff. I just thought the fat guy who couldn't see the sailboat was funny.

Looking at it more critically now, the seams definitely are more visible. The Gwen character, for example, seems kind of shoe-horned into the plot. She pops up at first as part of an extended visual gag (with some gratuituous nudity). Then all of the sudden she's friends with all the main characters, gives some sage advice, and then disappears. Do we even see her again after she convinces Brandi what an awesome guy T.S. is? I actually think the plot, as a whole, holds together pretty well despite any changes or re-shoots. Although the fact that the denouement of the film hinges on a 15 year-old girl's sex tape...I mean, "problematic" is a pretty overused term in criticism these days, but it sure as hell hasn't aged well. Nor, for that matter, does Shannon's prison rape epilogue, although that I can at least excuse as a product of its time.

I want to go back to the point you made about Smith not really knowing how to make a studio film when this was shot. Because you're right, of course, about how amateur and/or stagnant most of the shots are. But as low-rent as the movie looks, I have to give credit to the production design team. That might sound crazy, because the Eden Prairie Center looks like the shittiest place on earth. I've been in a lot of malls. Some dead, some dying, some with live water fowl roaming around. But I've never been in one that looked as cheap as this one. It reminded me of those Halloween stores that pop up every month in the desiccated corpse of a Showbiz Pizza, only it's the WHOLE BUILDING. Despite that, it's clear that thought was put into the mise-en-scene, because almost every establishing shot contains some sort of pun or joke. Granted, a store named "Rug Munchers" (what would they even sell there?) isn't exactly high brow, but nothing in this movie is high brow. But in watching it I was struck by the obvious care that went into creating the world of these characters, even if the visual acumen wasn't really there.

Bill: Yes, the production design was very good! Smith's crew was definitely on top of their game. He was still very much learning the ropes. The visual gags were somewhat surprising for me on this re-watch, since Smith has always struck me a lot more as the type of guy to go for a spoken joke than a written one. On-screen, at least.

As for the rewrites and whatnot, the rough cut of the original opening is on the DVD. Please don't watch it. If memory serves, it involves T.S. fucking up something for Brandi's dad at a big gala, that ends up getting on the news and becomes a big embarrassment for Rooker. Which is a big part of why Mr. Svennig hates T.S. so much. It ended up being a running joke throughout the original script and during shooting, which they ADR'd out where appropriate. Like when T.S. punches the guy in the dirt mall parking lot, the guy's actually asking if he's the guy on the news.

I'm really glad you brought up the weirdness of the characters just sort of showing up, because it reminded me of something really weird: T.S. and Brodie are constantly explaining things to one another that you would really hope these best friends would already know about by now. T.S. actually explains to Brodie what Brandi's father's show is about, as if the televised show his girlfriend's father (who hates his guts) is responsible for somehow never came up. And Brodie introduces Gwen to T.S. and who she is and what she does, as though Brodie, a man who is constantly telling stories about the people he knows and the sordid shit they get into, never mentioned the 15-year-old sex scientist he knows and hangs out at the mall with.

Everyone in this movie is constantly introducing everyone else to everyone, because somehow everyone's circle of friends just includes "myself." T.S. doesn't need to be introduced to Willem, though. He knows Willem.

Anything else worth noting about "Mallrats?"

Emily: I'm just happy to learn that I still like the movie. You're right, of course, that nostalgia has a lot to do with it. But after finding more fault than I anticipated with "Clerks," I was pretty scared that looking critically at "Mallrats" would make it impossible to enjoy the movie. But despite all the myriad flaws we've discussed, the movie still has a dirt-faced charm.

Also, my freshman college roommate dated a guy we named "Steve-Dave" because of this movie. I think she married him. That is all.

Bill: Meanwhile, I expected to like "Clerks" less and like "Mallrats" more on this rewatch, so heaven help us as we move along to "Chasing Amy" next.