How's this for a movie plot: two unlikely friends - one a responsible, buttoned-down dud, the other a bewildered, manic slacker - experience relationship dilemmas, take refuge in a sea of commercialism, and neatly resolve all their problems (ranging from the unexpected death of an acquaintance to run-ins with the law) before the end of a long, confused day.
If that description sounds curiously like last year's Sundance darling Clerks, that's because writer-director Kevin Smith's second film, Mall Rats, traffics in the same banal miseries collectively visited upon Generation X. Unfortunately, a bigger budget and a few funnier lines haven't contributed much to Smith's creative development; he falls victim to the notorious sophomore jinx, making a film ripe with promise but pitably derivative.
Mall Rats follows the same general format as Clerks - a good clue that while Smith may know where he wants to go, he has no clear idea how to get there. Set over the course of one day, Mall Rats concerns a contingent of New Jersey college students engaging in fractured, pointless musings on the nature of love as they wander through the local mall. Brodie (Jason Lee) prefers playing his Sega to having sex with his girlfriend (Shannen Doherty), and so he pretends not to mind when she dumps him fo a clothing store manager who "looks like a date rapist." His best friend J.T. (Jeremy London), by contrast, wears his heart on his sleeve; he mopes around the entire movie wondering how he can ever win back his girlfriend.
With a plot that plainly lacks personal vision, Mall Rats can never hope to convince you it's hip and novel. Despite championing individuality, it's a hopelessly middlebrow, mainstream comedy with low expectations and a fear of being what it obviously wants to be: the comic anthem for youth society.
Mall Rats does stand distinctively apart from many teen comedies in one way: how it deals frankly with the senual confusion, even ambivalence, of its young heroes. The film is not afraid to confront the giant taboos of sexual identity that most other movies of its type would never consider addressing, and it does so in a smart, oddly compelling way. You have to admire Smith for dodging the twin bullets of good taste and prurience, and making discussions about everything from an arrested sex drive, sodomy fixations, statutory rape, and penis size seem not only humorous but sometimes obliquely insightful.
In fact, it's one of the sad ironies of Mall Rats that it succeeds in being perceptive precisely when its characters do not resort to strained introspection; somehow the very act of taking a life inventory aloud brings the movie to a screeching halt. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the sappy, contrived scene between Brodie and Marvel Comics maven Stan Lee, one of Brodie's idols. You can hear the violins playing as Stan, trying to convince Brodie to make up with his girlfriend, tells him how, given the chance, he'd surrender all his successes just to have one more moment with the sweetheart he forsook years ago. Although Smith tries to soften the gooiness of the scene by showing us later that it was a set-up, by that time the damage has already been done, and the movie never fully recovers momentum.
If Smith had followed the natural course of the movie - is he had concentrated on deconstructing the nature of slackerdom, highlighting its root causes and its pros and cons - he might have achieved something worthwhile. A stinging glimpse of suburban WASP post-adolescence would be a welcome counterpoise to, for example, Woody Allen, whose films agonize over the riotous pain of urban Jewish adulthood. Instead, while Smith seems capable of offering such a fresh perspective, he pads the movie with extraneous ideas and repetitive gimmicks. But there's a frantic feeling to it, as if he has little confidence he'll ever have the opportunity to direct again, and so he stacks it with an endless stream of hit-or-miss gags, rejecting the invitation to be the voice of his generation.
For a brief while, you think Smith might take up the challenge. Several times he hits close to an angle that might be both inventive and intelligent, but he keeps missing the mark. The character of Brodie, for instance, has potential as a twentysomething Vergil for a modern-day Inferno: a tour guide through pop culture hell. But Smith vacillates; he's unwilling to commit to a definitive point of view, and rather than criticize conspicuous consumerism, he embraces it. (It's a bit depressing to believe that Smith really is just a slacker making a movie; he doesn't have anything to say about his culture, he merely serves as its chronicler. You can't help but wonder if naysaying sociologists are correct in their evaluation of Generation X as bright but unmotivated, knowledgeable but completely without critical guideposts or analytical skills.)
Even with its serious and insuperable flaws, Mall Rats still manages to be more invigorating than most other films about aimless youth. Although it shies away from the savvy, quiet ironies of Richard Linklater's profile of burned-out high school grads, Dazed and Confused, its occasional wit elevates it well above meandering movies such as Wayne's World, or self-deluded ones like Reality Bites. Smith's enthusiasm is engaging, bit it's exceeded by his capacity for indulgence and lack of imagaination. For example, although the characters Jay and Silent Bob are the only true hold-overs from Clerks, their presence is a symptom of the crisis of creativity that plagues the entire film; they represent the chain binding the film to its trite, conventional narrative. (Jay and Bob are cartoonish substitutes for true invention. With their idiotic blueprints plotting out disatrous espionage, they're live-action versions of Pinky and the Brain without any underlying wit.)
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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.