Malaise at the Mall: Mallrats at 25

Kevin Smith’s Clerks changed the world of independent cinema forever. No, not single-handedly, but the early 1990s saw a tidal wave of (mostly white, mostly male) filmmakers shouldering their way into film festivals and cinemas: Richard Linklater, with Dazed and Confused and Slackers; Quentin Tarantino, with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction; Allison Anders, with Gas Food Lodging; Larry Clark and Harmony Korine, with Kids; Robert Rodriguez, with El Mariachi; Julie Dash, with Daughters of the Dust. Among his peers, Smith’s breezy, casual style—his interest in showing a certain slice of the working class, with all their pop-culture obsessions and sexual hang-ups—stood out, and Clerks struck a chord with critics and audiences both. 

The 1994 film was an impressive box office success (it’s cinematic lore by now, but: Smith spent about $30,000 shooting it, and the film made $3.2 million), ended up on countless best-of-the-year lists, and jettisoned Smith into the mainstream. Clerks is no longer a cult classic; at least, not really. It spawned the Kevin Smith cinematic universe, and it got a sequel (Clerks II, co-starring Rosario Dawson and with a notable scene featuring Wanda Sykes, a duo that demonstrated at least some self-awareness from Smith on the racial hegemony of his films), and a number of bona fide A-listers have floated throughout Smith’s projects since (Ben Affleck, most consistently). While Smith’s industry clout has dimmed some in recent years, Clerks is inarguably his classic.

And then there’s Mallrats.  

Released in theaters on October 20, 1995—almost precisely a year after ClerksMallrats is an encapsulation of Smith’s growing influence (that Stan Lee cameo, before such a thing became commonplace in the Marvel Cinematic Universe!), his broad vision for the View Askewniverse, and the kind of edgy ‘90s humor that doesn’t work very well anymore, and perhaps didn’t work very well then, either. There’s a fair amount to criticize: subplots about both statutory rape and prison rape; the overuse of the word “retard”; a very black-and-white presentation of gender identity and a somewhat derivative suggestion of what women want from their male partners; and not one, but two topless scenes that don’t really serve a narrative purpose. (Between Mallrats and Friends, why was the possibility of a third nipple such a curiosity in the 1990s?)

But the appeal of Mallrats, like Clerks before it, is in its presentation of twentysomething aimlessness as an understandable byproduct of middle-class malaise. What is there to do in a small town where the only places to go are shopping malls? Where the suburban sprawl allows for the creation of impressively gaudy mansions not too far from a flea market where people scrape by selling random knick-knacks accumulated over years (including a baseball hat with a Clerks logo on it)? Where all jobs, and all career prospects, circle around retail? Mallrats isn’t intentionally doing the subversive work of a film like George Romero’s 1978 zombie classic Dawn of the Dead, but it essentially paints a portrait of America as infatuated not only with consumption, but with voyeurism. Peering through store windows at what they can’t afford. Watching a reality dating show and passing judgment on the relationships of other people. Obsessing over decades-long narratives involving fictional superheroes, and memorizing the details of those stories and lives instead of building your own. “I love the smell of commerce in the morning,” Jason Lee’s Brodie announces as he walks into Eden Prairie Center, an allusion to Robert Duvall’s Lt. Col. Kilgore in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. And just as Kilgore learned to love the napalm that was decaying his humanity, so too does Brodie adore the mall that masquerades distraction (warm cookies! new comics!) as delight. 

Mallrats (which received a wonderful new Blu-ray release from Arrow Video this month) begins with a pair of breakups: Best friends T.S. (Jeremy London) and Brodie (Lee) are dumped by their long-time girlfriends Brandi (Claire Forlani) and Rene (Shannen Doherty), respectively. For Brandi, T.S.’s constant friction with her father, Mr. Svenning (Michael Rooker), became too much to bear, especially after T.S. objected to Brandi appearing as a contestant on her father’s new dating show, Truth or Date. The two of them are hurtful to each other in a way informed by years of togetherness: “You’re such a Daddy’s girl, it makes me sick,” T.S. says, while for Brandi, T.S. is “exactly like my father … thoughtless and self-absorbed.” T.S. and Brandi are used to “make-up, break-up shit,” but this time, it might really be over—and Brandi appearing on Truth or Date and potentially meeting someone new could add another dimension of finality. 

That same morning, at a more modest house far away from the Svenning family’s funded-by-TV mansion, in a bedroom decorated with posters of movies like Tremors and comic book characters like the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the X-Men, Rene ends things with Brodie, too. They’ve been dating since high school, and Rene is still sneaking over each night and out each morning. She’s never met Brodie’s mother. She’s tired of a relationship that feels like it’s going nowhere, and like Brandi, she doesn’t hold back. “You play video games and I fall asleep unfulfilled. … I cry, because I have nothing better to do than fuck you,” Rene says before climbing out of Brodie’s window and throwing a letter at him that makes clear the dissolution of their relationship, too. 

United in their heartbreak, T.S. and Brodie decide to hang out at Eden Prairie Center, their town’s nice mall, the one with a tanning salon, and upscale men’s and women’s boutiques, and the store where Brodie buys all his comics, and an Easter Bunny photo opportunity for kids, and an expansive food court, and a pet store, and on and on and on. It is the only place that “can help ease our simultaneous double loss,” Brodie insists, and despite T.S.’s general disinterest in the mall, he decides to tag along. When the best friends arrive at Eden Prairie, they realize two important things about their ex-girlfriends: that Truth or Date will be filming at the mall, with Brandi potentially falling for one of the contestants chosen by her father, and that Rene is already dating Shannon Hamilton (Affleck), the smarmy manager of what Brodie degradingly calls “this upscale wannabe shop on the second floor.” Brandi and Rene could really move on without them, and so T.S. and Brodie enlist an array of friends—T.S.’s ex-girlfriend Gwen (Joey Lauren Adams, who would later star in Smith’s Chasing Amy); 15-year-old genius and sex researcher Tricia (Renée Humphrey); the Magic Eye-poster-obsessed Willam (Ethan Suplee); and returning Clerks stoners Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith himself)—to derail the filming of Truth or Date, humiliate Shannon, and get Brandi and Rene back. 

Mallrats has the same off-the-cuff cleverness and indulgently chatty style as Clerks, as well as the same male obsession with sexual conquest, lewd humor, and gross-out gags (this is still the film that begins with a lengthy anecdote from Brodie about his cousin getting cats stuck in his ass, because “How else am I supposed to get the gerbil out?”) but Smith had a star in Jason Lee, and he knew it. Lee’s charisma is uncontainable, and his magnetism manifests as Brodie’s shit-eating grin, his braggadocious flirting, and his harried (but justified!) rants about escalator safety. Brodie is, like Jeff Anderson’s Randal Graves, mostly an asshole. He farts while receiving oral sex. He promises Rene breakfast, but then never cooks it. He is way too interested in the details of superheroes’ genitalia—so much so that even the legendary Stan Lee is a little concerned. Rene is not wrong when she says that Brodie barely seems to exist “on the same plane of existence as the rest of us.”

But a man has got to have a code, and Brodie’s is driven by loyalty to and solidarity with his friends. With T.S., for whom Brodie would do anything. With Jay and Silent Bob, who share Brodie’s love of the X-Men and Star Wars and who appreciate how Brodie treats them with dignity, despite their unrelenting goofiness. With Tricia and Gwen, who Brodie swears to protect from creeps like Shannon. Lee relishes Smith’s elaborate dialogue, making a meal out of phrases like “Kryptonite condom” and “autonomous unit for mid-mall snacking,” and has an easy physicality that is believable when either sticking a hand into his underwear for a “stank palm” or threatening security guards at the mall. “You fuckers think just ‘cause a guy reads comics, he can’t start some shit?” practically serves as Brodie’s mantra, and coupled with his wide, self-deprecating smile, Lee’s performance is unforgettable.

The rest of the cast, no matter how hard they try, can’t compare with Lee’s zealous energy, although Doherty—amping up the bad-girl persona that she had cultivated on Beverly Hills, 90210—comes the closest. Mewes and Smith further developed Jay and Silent Bob’s earnest weirdness here, making time for their affection toward kittens, their unique vocabulary (“Snootchie bootchies!”), and their propensity for silly, Scooby-Doo-like antics. And while very little in Mallrats suggests that Smith is at all capable of presenting a nuanced female perspective, he does provide them with moments of honesty and rebelliousness. Gwen is unabashed in telling Brandi that she’ll make a play for T.S. if they don’t get back together. Tricia is committed to her research into male sexuality and unembarrassed by her work. Brandi doesn’t apologize for trying to help her father, even if T.S. doesn’t like it. Rene is unafraid of pursuing her own sexual satisfaction and making plain her desires. Even the fortune teller that T.S. and Brodie go see, who so enthralls them with her third nipple, is confidently pulling a con that uses men’s own perversions against them. Compared with some of Smith’s ‘90s contemporaries, that’s a veritable onslaught of female representation.

“I have no respect for people with no shopping agenda,” Shannon sneers to Brodie, and that line captures so much of what makes his character a perfect villain: his outright approval of consumerism on one side, and his belief that material success is akin to human value on the other. In the 25 years since the release of Mallrats, malls have become increasingly irrelevant, their concrete shells sitting hollow in a sea of empty parking spaces as online empires like Amazon widen the wealth gap, normalize the abuse of low-wage workers, and stoke our impatient demand for immediacy.

Watching Mallrats brings up a peculiar kind of nostalgia: Maybe chocolate-covered pretzels really are the perfect snack. Maybe we need to slow down. Maybe we just replaced one bastion of materialism with another. Mallrats argues that someone with “no direction, no college ambition, and no job prospects” might be the hero we need, and maybe Brodie, with his wanderings and his musings, was our savior all along. And the fact that Mallrats ends with the thoroughly unqualified Brodie leaping forward into a gig as a late-night talk show host? That’s a white-male fantasy, that’s the View Askewniverse, and that’s the American Dream.

Roxana Hadadi writes about film, television, and culture with sides of judgment and thirst. She is a Tomatometer-approved critic on Rotten Tomatoes and a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, and the Online Film Critics Society. She holds an MA in literature and lives outside Baltimore, Maryland.

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