Wednesday, August 14, 2019

I Finally Watched Mallrats

(This is the third in a series of how a fifty-year-old geek finally saw the films of Kevin Smith. If you want the origin story for this series, read the Introduction and then review of Clerks.)

The same guy who made Clerks made Mallrats?

One is a black-and-white indie film made on a shoe-string budget set mostly in a single location while the other is a full-color movie set mostly in a single location with a lot more money on the screen. Well, okay so the premise of both films might be similar, but the payoffs are completely different.

Oh, and you get a glimpse of Future Kevin Smith in this movie, too.

The Production

A year after the success of his first film, Clerks, writer/director Kevin Smith made his second, Mallrats. I suspect there are numerous places you can go to learn about how this movie was made. Suffice it to say the difference between Clerk and Mallrats is night and day. The instant you see the Universal logo, you almost forget you're watching a Kevin Smith film. Wasn't this the guy who filmed his first film in black and white?

Yup. And he's also learned a thing or two about staging, spacing, lighting, and other things now that he had the backing of a major studio. He also had some well known and soon-to-be famous actors in tow. Michael Rooker starred in Days of Thunder and The Dark Half while Shannen Doherty appeared weekly in Beverly Hills 90210. Ben Affleck is here, as is skateboarder Jason Lee in what I think is his first main role. Man, he shined in this film. To be honest, I know him best from Alvin and the Chipmunks and as the voice of Underdog in the live-action movie. What? I have a kid and we watched those movies over and over. Oh, and My Name is Ed.

Smith and co-star Jason Mewes are back as Jay and Silent Bob in a much bigger role than they had in Clerks. I've got to find some behind-the-scenes talk about the choice Smith made to broaden the presence of these two. Was it merely to get himself and his friend more screen time or enhance the story with some comedic elements? Either way, he succeeded on both counts.

The Setup

As the film opens, T.S. Quint (Jeremy London) is about to pick up his girlfriend, Brandi Svenning (Claire Forlani), and take her down to Florida. He's going to propose in the Universal Studios theme park. She can't go because she has to fill in as the female contestant on her dad's game show, Truth or Date. They fight and quickly break up. Despondent, Quint heads over to see his friend, Brodie (Jason Lee) and talk it over. Brodie himself has just been dumped by Rene, his girlfriend (Doherty), for not being romantic enough. Considering he lives in his parents' basement crammed full of comic boxes, magazines, and superhero posters on the walls to say nothing of his reluctance to introduce her to his mom, I'd say she has a point.

I found it funny that T.S.--who basically comes across as one of the cool guys--would even ask basement dweller Brodie for advice. As the movie goes on and T.S. witnesses some of Brodie's ideas, I questioned how they were even friends. Brodie gives voice to my puzzlement: "You're gonna listen to me? To something I said? Jesus, man, haven't I made it abundantly clear during the tenure of our friendship that I don't know shit? I mean, half the time I'm just talking out of my ass, or sticking my hand in it." This is truth, but T.S. doesn't even bat an eye when Brodie suggests the antidote for both of their troubles: go to a mall.

What the choice does is allow Smith to fill the mouths of his characters with more witty observational dialogue just like he did in Clerks, albeit with fewer bad words. And while I found Clerks humorous, I laughed out loud more than a few times during Mallrats. Brodie's story about farting in front of his girlfriend was pretty darn funny. I had heard the discussion of Superman and Lois Lane and the perils of her getting pregnant before, but it comes across funnier as spoken by T.S. and Brodie. I especially enjoyed Brodie's comment about not talking about romance and girls when the discussion is focused solely on comics. Spoken like a true 90s twentysomething.

The Antics of Jay and Silent Bob

What makes Mallrats so much fun are the happenstance encounters Brodie and T.S. have and their reactions to them. There's poor Willam who cannot for the life of him see the image in the 3D picture ("It's a sailboat."). Affleck's more "grown up" character works at a men's store in the mall. Joey Lauren Adams' Gwen trying on clothes but keeps getting surprised by Silent Bob and his antics.

Jay and Silent Bob. They're just hanging out at the mall. Bob is trying the Jedi mind trick to levitate a cigarette from the palm of one hand to his other. Jay is much funnier in this movie than in Clerks. Holy cow, his little dance as he looks at all the people walking by the pet store is hilarious. They're friends of Brodie (natch) and it is to them he turns to help destroy the game show set erected inside the mall as a means for T.S. to find time with Brandi.

Love this little back-and-forth as an example of how listless Jay and Silent Bob are.

Brodie: You know about this game show they got going on here? We need you guys to somehow ensure that it doesn't happen.
Jay: Is that it? We were gonna do that anyway.
Brodie: Really? Why?
Jay: What else are we gonna do? Silent Bob stole the schematics from some foolish carpenter and found a weakness just like the fucking Death Star. You knock this crossbeam out and fucking bickety-bam! The whole stage comes crashing down.
Brodie: Well we were thinking of something simple, but, hey, if you want to destroy the stage, we're all for that.

Played as comic relief, Jay and Silent Bob are great in this movie. But what I appreciate most about them is that they appear to be in the wrong movie. Everyone other than Jay and Silent Bob know they're in a romantic comedy populated by twentysomethings. Jay and Bob are extras from an Airplane movie. Or the Marx Brothers. Or Wile E. Coyote. Or, more accurately, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Weird? Let me explain.

The best thing about the Abbott and Costello movie is that the monsters are all played straight. You never see Dracula poke Frankenstein in the eyes a la The Three Stooges. The only funny people in the movie are the two main stars. In Mallrats, the same dynamic is at play, except the funny guys are the side men. It'll be interesting to see how this evolves knowing Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, where they appear to be the leads, is in the future.

The Expected Ending

Despite all the window dressing, Mallrats is a romantic comedy. Like a good Doris Day and Rock Hudson picture, it's not if the leading men will get back together with their ladies, it's how. For T.S., it's him on the Truth or Date game show with Brandi as the contestant. In this way, he gets to pop the question in front of an audience. Any chance she'd say no?

For Brodie during most of the movie, it doesn't look so good. That is, until a chance (not really) meeting with comic book legend Stan Lee. The elder man talks to Brodie about love and what's really important (read: not comic books). Knowing that Stan is married, I expected him to circle back around to his own wife, but instead, spins a yarn that is exactly what Brodie needs to hear. Sure, T.S. had asked Stan the Man to do it and he did, with wonderful warmth. But it is yet more evidence that writer Kevin Smith is a romantic at heart. In all the podcasts he does, when the subject of marriage comes up, he's glowingly effusive about how great it is. The younger man who wrote this movie either was in love or knew the truth about love because this little soliloquy by Stan Lee is fantastic.

Watching for the Trademark Kevin Smith Things

A real treat about watching these films for the first time at age fifty and having listening to Smith's podcasts for years is to see how certain things he still says to this day initially show up in his movies. Here are a few I saw:

Snootchie-bootchies and Noochie noochie
Tell 'em Steve Dave
Whatever you call that "mmnnmmnn" sound Jay makes when he and Silent Bob are air guitaring to heavy metal music. I've heard Smith do that frequently.
"Trust me, True Believer." Yup. I went back and re-watched Stan Lee's cameo in Captain Marvel after seeing Mallrats. I cannot even imagine what longtime fans of the movie felt when they saw that. 

Silent Bob Speaks

After Silent Bob's great line about women in Clerks, I was admittedly underwhelmed with his one bit of dialogue in this movie. "Adventure. Excitement. A Jedi craves not these things." Sure, it's a great quote from a time when there were no new Star Wars movies on the horizon and the franchise had not consumed all of pop culture yet, but the bar for Bob's dialogue had been set very high. This was just nice.

The Verdict

Boy, I loved Mallrats. I don't get how it didn't do well. I'm a fifty year old man watching it for the first time and I loved it. Sure I'm a comic book geek like the guys in the movie, but that's just side chatter. Yes, it's part of the film's DNA but it doesn't get in the way of the warm-hearted story.

In a recent podcast interview with the Empire Film folks, Smith talked about the movie bombing when it opened but aging well. It certainly has. Not sure what the audience thought this film would be like in 1995. Like the original trailer closed with: "What else did you expect from the director of 'Clerks'?"

So far, two movies into Kevin Smith's career, I'm seeing a pattern. Let's see if it holds true for Chasing Amy.

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