The lost generation

Kevin Smith's Mall Rats is a derivative retread of Clerks

The f ilm is replete with references to Clerks and other inside jokes, from a hat with the movie logo on it to the casting of its star in a small part. And the climax of the film must come from an entire chapter on sitcom cliches: a live network television broadcast that goes dumbly awry. Smith's filmmaking heroes may be Hal Hartley and Jim Jarmusch and Linklater, but his stylistic forefather is John Hughes. Mall Rats too often resembles the silly Hughes comedies of the 1980s - with the characters five years older - for Smith to be taken seriously as a groundbreaking young director.

Considering its willingness to tackle several forbidden topics, Mall Rats hesitance to risk defying other conventions is surprising. Like Randal in Clerks, Brodie plays the part of catalyst, but ultimately he's just comic relief - a supporting player to the bland, bourgeios ethic of the film, embodied by J.T. Kevin Smith's greatest transgression may be in failing to let Brodie take over as the protagonist (he's already the character most people will identify with, or at least be drawn to). Smith inexplicably constrains himself to traditional rules of structure by making the hero the drab, sour-pussed obsessive-romantic rather than the spacy, daft iconoclast, and his apparent impotence in being able to break free of the commonplace condemns him to mediocrity.

If Mall Rats is mostly a safe, uninspired collection of bits, at least Jason Lee's constant barrage of deftly excessive comic moments brings the film its chief source of energy. The rest of the cast does not fare so well. London's character is supposed to carry the movie, but he's not up to the task. London seems awkward and uneasy - dare I say, embarrassed? - and the dialogue never sounds natural coming from his mouth. Michael Rooker, who with his shaved head looks like a caricature of Lex Luthor, suffers through more vomit jokes and related bathroom "humor" than you'd find in a John Waters film. It's never a good indication of originality when the villian is reduced to barfing where the punchline should go, especially when the script is peppered with amusing lines. If Smith marshaled his efforts in a cogent manner, and stopped trying to appeal to everyone, he might live up to his press and make an honest and clever film one day.

Mall Rats. Gramercy Pictures. Jason Lee, Shannen Doherty, Jeremy London. Written and directed by Kevin Smith. Now showing.

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