40 for 40 – #33. Mallrats

In a move that might surprise many, although not anyone who knows me, an odd choice sits at #33.
A movie that critics hated.
A movie no one saw in theatres.
A movie that almost derailed the career of its creator.
But a movie I love, nonetheless.

#33. Mallrats (1995) Jason Lee, Shannon Doherty, Michael Rooker, Jason Mewes. Directed by Kevin Smith.

Mallrats might seem like an unlikely candidate for this series, but then, this was never going to be a list of movies I believe to only be technically outstanding and/or critically acclaimed. If it was, we’d be looking at an entirely different set of films.

No, 40 for 40 is all about personal preference. My personal preference. My personal preference for movies I enjoy over and over and over again. So by that criteria, Mallrats makes the cut. Is it one of the greatest movies of all time? God, no. But it’s one of my favourites.

And if you think this one’s an odd choice, wait until you see #32…

Anyone that listens to our podcast knows that we reference Kevin Smith from time-to-time.

Actually, quite a bit. All right… all the time.

Quite frankly, it’s a staple of the show at this point. So much so, we dedicated (the perfectly numbered) Episode 37 entirely to the man and his work.

Well, Mallrats was my introduction to Kevin Smith.

In 1996, I had recently finished high school and begun that odd transition between teenager and adult when I saw the trailer for this movie. It seemed like a quirky little comedy, raunchy enough to attract the adolescence in me, but legitimately funny enough to avoid being some weak, R-rated ‘titty-flick’ posing as a worthwhile movie. When I finally tracked down a copy at a video store (look them up, kids), I sat down to watch a movie that, at that time of my life, was unlike any I’d seen before.

One thing I respect about Smith’s second film is that it isn’t trying to be something it’s not. It’s just a simple movie about two Gen-X slackers, trying to exist in a world that sees them as useless, throwaway people.

T.S. Quint (Jeremy London) seems to be on track college and career wise, but struggles to express himself, while Brodie Bruce (Jason Lee), who is very comfortable with himself as a person, is going nowhere in all other aspects of his life. Their differences are many, yet their similarities synchronise when they both begin the battle to save their love lives.

London plays T.S. as the straight man of the pair. He’s the lovelorn ‘hero’ of the movie, striving to win back the beautiful Brandi Svenning (Claire Forlani) after she dumps him due to his rather poorly-timed insensitivity. I’ll admit though, the weakest part of the film for me is London. Even for a silly little movie like this one, his acting just isn’t there. I was surprised at first, because I thought he was great as Pink in Dazed and Confused, but then I soon learned that was Jason London, Jeremy’s (apparently more talented) twin brother. Despite London’s performance, I do still like T.S. It’s hard to be tough on the guy when he has the movie stolen out from under him by the amazing Jason Lee.

In his first ever movie role, the former pro-skateboarder delivers a hilarious debut performance. Brodie is the film’s obvious standout, and I’d even go so far as to say, if not for him, I might never have enjoyed this movie. I certainly wouldn’t be writing an article about it twenty-something years later.

Brodie’s inappropriateness and lack of filter are both genuinely entertaining. His Cousin Walter and grandmother stories, quirky morsels of faux-philosophical advice and (who could forget) the stink-palm, are all great little character nuances that Lee ran with and made his own. But Brodie is more than just a series of jokes. His character actually has (for a Kevin Smith film, anyway) depth to it.

Once dumped by Renee (Shannon Doherty) and faced with confronting his own inadequacies, he immediately retreats to the one place he feels like a king: the mall. However, over the course of the movie, he realises his true feelings for Renee, going to great lengths to get her back in a final scene that never fails to elicit audible laughs from me, even after all these years.

Together, (the admittedly poor) London and Lee combine well. Like Smith’s first movie, Clerks, he sticks to the ‘buddy’ format to great effect. Where T.S. is quiet and reserved, Brodie is loud and uproariously obnoxious. Where one is weak, the other is strong, and together they make a great team as they invariably come across a slew of odd supporting characters.

That’s another reason Mallrats is great. When you first look at it, the movie can seem like a collection of funny scenes with a rather weak overall narrative. But if you watch it again, pay attention to the supporting characters. They basically guide our heroes on their path. With cumulative tidbits, they all add small parts to the overall plot, offering counsel, giving out vital information, and ultimately (albeit unknowingly) combine to help T.S. and Brodie win the day.

That’s all you’re getting, pervs…

Gwen (Joey Lauren Adams) helps both T.S. and Brandi see that they’re right for each other, while she even helps Brodie realise he does love Renee.

Trisha Jones (Renee Humphrey) and her sexual research book, Boregasm, which might initially seem like a cheap sex-joke, also play a part in the final victory when her liaison with ‘Fashionable Male’ Shannon Hamilton (Ben Affleck) is revealed.

Even slovenly Willam (Ethan Suplee), who just cannot see that hidden 3-D sailboat, accidentally assists in the end in a funny little twist.

But the ultimate advice comes in the form of a comic book legend; Stan Lee. His appearance harkens back to seeing Wolfman Jack with Richard Dreyfuss in American Graffiti, but in true Kevin Smith style, is skewed through his own prism.

Then of course, there’s Jay and Silent Bob.

The pair (Jason Mewes and Smith, himself) who appeared in most of Smith’s movies to spawn an on-screen film universe decades before Marvel perfected it, are at their peak in Mallrats. This is my favourite iteration of the two New Jersey drug dealers. While I love Dogma, the characters are overused in that movie, which of course doesn’t help when watching their own road trip adventure in Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back. Less is more with these two, and in Mallrats, I think we get the perfect amount.

Jay and Silent Bob are still somewhat dangerous in this one as well, which was part of their allure in Clerks. While they are undeniably funny in that movie, they’re still shady characters who at any moment, seem as though they could turn on those around them should the situation arise. In this movie, yes, they do slip into several cartoony moments, but really, the whole movie is one big, non-superhero graphic novel come to life, so what’s the harm?

The Easter Bunny mugging, their attempts to destroy the mall’s newly-erected stage (complete with Wile E. Coyote blueprints), as well as the constant Batman references all pepper the movie with a sprinkling of laughs throughout.

Kevin Smith’s love of movies other than Batman is also on full display in Mallrats, starting with his admiration for Jaws.

T.S.’s plans for Universal Studios, and his surname ‘Quint’. Not to mention Brodie is lifted from the Amity Police chief as well as his surname ‘Bruce’ being the nickname Spielberg and his crew had for the mechanical shark. And according to Smith, himself, Jay’s last name was going to be revealed to be ‘Hooper’ to complete the homage, but that name was ultimately handed to a character in Smith’s next film, Chasing Amy. Lastly, quite possibly having the movie’s opening scene revolve around the swimming-related death of a young woman could also be seen as a subtle nod to Spielberg’s classic.

Smith’s affection for pop culture lore is also heavily present, combined with his own signature dialogue and style. Twenty-something slackers spouting strings of clever words as though they’re living thesauruses, at the same time waxing poetic on the love-life of Superman and debating whether a cookie stand is part of the food court.

T.S. bumps his head with a nod to the clumsy Storm Trooper in Star Wars and the mall’s store fronts (Rug Munchers Carpet Outlet, Burning Flesh Tanning Salon and Buy Me Toys) are snide little jabs at the consumerism of the eighties and nineties. The opening credits are done in the style of classic comic book covers (one even scarily predicts Affleck’s role as Batman decades early), and finally, the fact that Mallrats takes place one day earlier than Clerks, takes its cue from Temple of Doom being set a year earlier than its predecessor, #40 on this list, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Smith also respects comic book storytelling structure when it comes to the movie’s villains. Most comic book / superhero stories use a multitude of villains, on varying threat levels. In Mallrats, we get exactly that.

There’s the minor villain or thug, in this case, Affleck’s Shannon Hamilton.

“Hey… I’m Batman…”

At this stage of his career, Ben Affleck was basically the ‘big jock asshole guy’, having played similar roles in the aforementioned Dazed and Confused and School Ties. And his greatest role was still a few years away…

Hamilton is a great foil for Brodie. The perfect mix of bully and rich snob, who would be right at home in other comedies like Caddyshack or Animal House. His plan to seduce Renee ‘into the back of a Volkswagen’ adds more motivation for Brodie to defeat him and save his girl, just like the heroes in his beloved comic books.

You just know that comment was written by Brodie.

Like all comic books, there are also the henchmen; in this case, Roddy (Scott Mosier) as the weak-but-brainy second fiddle, and LaFours (Sven-Ole Thorson) as the hulking muscle.

I’m still waiting for Smith to confirm my LaFours / Silent Bob ‘Looper’ theory…

And finally, the ‘Big-Bad’ himself, Mr. Svenning, played by everyone’s favourite Mary Poppins, Michael Rooker. Svenning as a wannabe media mogul as well as that typical, bullying father of the would-be bride, is perfect for Rooker. His shaved head invokes thoughts of Lex Luthor, yet his threatening, Godfatherlike monologue to T.S. has its image shattered and revealed as false bravado when he becomes a snivelling lapdog the instant the television executives show up.

His sickly comeuppance at Brodie’s (literal) hand via the now-infamous chocolate-covered pretzels is perfect for a light-hearted movie like this. Svenning might not be Hans Gruber or Nurse Ratched or even Percy Wetmore, but for a Kevin Smith film, he’s a terrific villain.

Sorry, this has nothing to do with Mallrats. I just wanted to make you cry again…

Mallrats definitely has its ups and downs, but even when the movie slides into a coda of sorts at the dirt mall, Smith makes it work. It’s another fun little escapade, even if it does feel like a studio mandate to get more nudity into the film.

Having Brodie be the one so eager to witness the topless psychic show, only to be horrified by Ivannah (Priscilla Barnes) and her ‘third nipple’ is flat out funny. It’s even funnier when it’s revealed Ivannah actually is psychic, giving the perfect advice to T.S. in another carefully-written moment from one of Smith’s supporting characters.

Again, that’s all you’re getting.

 All of these madcap characters and outlandish misadventures snowball (wink) into in the Truth or Date game show, an outrageous scene that I think might be the best comedic moment ever produced by Smith.

Brodie’s unprovoked hostility and incongruous replies are gold. His Cousin Walter airplane story is one for the ages and it’s a shame Jason Lee never became a much bigger star after this.

At least ‘My Name is Earl’ gave us that Brodie / Willam Reunion.

In a perfect happy ending worthy of John Hughes, both guys reunite with their girls and smite their enemies. Svenning is humiliated by watching his show fail and seeing Brodie get his own talk show (not to mention the diphtheria), and Hamilton goes to jail after the conclusion of a running joke in Silent Bob’s Jedi-Mind-Trick.

Really, when it’s all said and done, Mallrats a great all-round comedy.

So what went wrong? Why wasn’t it a hit?

Checking the opening weekend like…

One reason, I believe, is that it was ahead of its time. Its crass and sometimes gross-out humour didn’t really take off until other larger productions like There’s Something About Mary and American Pie hit it big a few years later. Had Mallrats come on the heels of those movies, perhaps Smith wouldn’t have any trouble getting a sequel (or television series) made.

I also think the studio didn’t know what it wanted. Smith has often told the story of how he was told to make a ‘smart Porky’s, but was then unable to get answers or further details on exactly what that meant.

I know I’m not alone in liking this movie, as most of Smith’s fans hold it in high regard. But in the end, the critical and commercial failure of Mallrats means little to me. Despite its flaws, I still think it’s a charming, often-dirty little movie with an incredible comedic performance by Jason Lee.

Above all else, it’s funny. And that’s all it needs to be.

But, Jay and Silent Bob? Well, that’s an entirely different story

Rating: 4 out of 5 chocolate-covered pretzels.

Favourite Moment: The game show. Brodie steals the show (literally).

Honourable Mention: “Fly, fat-ass, fly!”

Next week: #32 – “Now… light our darkest hour…”

Avoid being in the ‘framing business’ and order an Unfunny Nerd Tangent shirtMon Milfma won’t ever call you callow!

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