I own Mallrats on DVD. I’ve watched it a buncha times. There are parts of it I enjoy, there are parts that make me laugh. But let me make this clear: this is not a good movie. It’s not even a fair movie. It’s bad. It’s very bad. It’s dogshit. It’s premise is lame, its direction is clumsy, and its attempts at satire are childish and pathetic. I don’t hate it. At times I feel sorry for it. But it’s a fucking terrible movie, there’s no getting around it.
It’s not hard to see why so many people like this movie. When it does stumble onto a laugh, it’s usually a big laugh; the performers, especially Jason Lee in his first major role, are likable; and there’s lots of profanity and a fair bit of nudity, which will just flat-out entertain some people. It’s the inconsistency of Mallrats that really kills it; the waits between those few big laughs, despite the profanity and nudity, are interminable. The jokes that fall flat seem to outnumber the ones that hit their mark by an order of magnitude; for every amusing conversation between Brodie and T.S., there are a dozen ill-conceived attempts at slapstick by Jay and Silent Bob.
Mallrats is in many ways a perfect demonstration of what does and does not work about the Kevin Smith formula. Like Clerks and most of Smith’s subsequent films, Mallrats revolves around two young men: one who is experiencing girl troubles, the other his smart-ass best friend. While Clerks, Chasing Amy, and Clerks II following the two main characters through relatively realistic circumstances (despite a few of the more outlandish moments in Clerks II), T.S. and Brodie in Mallrats find themselves in the middle of a cartoon. There is the diabolical supervillain (Michael Rooker in Lex Luthor mode, shaved head and all), the wacky sidekicks (Jay and Silent Bob), and a rogues gallery of lesser antagonists (Ben Affleck as a smarmy employee of an upscale men’s store, Sven-Ole Thorsen as a sadistic mall security guard). All this makes Mallrats even goofier than most Kevin Smith movies; the result is a movie that inspires zero emotional investment and is usually desperately unfunny. As the two Clerks films and especially Chasing Amy demonstrate, Kevin Smith’s humor works best when he places his characters in more realistic scenarios. Even an obvious fantasy like Dogma comes across as a much more serious film compared to the broad, hammy bullshit that comprises most of Mallrats.
Kevin Smith made Clerks in his spare time for $30,000. After it broke, Universal Pictures came to him with a budget of several million dollars and asked him to deliver a bigger, brighter version of Clerks. In one of his anecdotes on the An Evening With Kevin Smith DVD, Smith claims he tried to convince the studio to give him less money. It would have benefited the film had he been successful; Mallrats, as modest as it is compared to most Hollywood blockbusters, stinks of excess. The large cast, the stunts that serve as punchlines for the Jay and Silent Bob bits, the presence of quasi-celebrities like Stan Lee – all this fails to improve on Clerks, which had no production value to lean on and had to live on wit.
Coming down so hard on Mallrats feels like piling on from one perspective. It’s only the second film Kevin Smith ever made, afterall, and it’s a film that I somewhat enjoy. It definitely won’t be the worst film I write about. Why don’t I just cut it a break, for Christ’s sake? I don’t know. For two reasons, maybe. First, because Kevin Smith is capable of more; I know it was only his second film, but Clerks was his first film and it surpasses Mallrats in every category. Second, because even at his best, Kevin Smith is overrated by his fans. The guy has done good work, even nearly-great work. He’s creative, he’s funny, and he’s not afraid of sincerity, which is increasingly rare in mainstream film. But he’s not even in the top ten directors of his generation. With artists like Paul Thomas Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Darren Aronofsky, Todd Field, Wes Anderson, Todd Haynes, Nicole Kassell, and Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins notwithstanding) making great or at least very interesting films, often with limited commercial success, it’s a little frustrating to see a filmmaker of lesser talent like Kevin Smith held up for his skill at writing chatty dialogue and inserting weed jokes into his films.
No, Mallrats isn’t Batman & Robin; it isn’t Make Them Die Slowly or a Star Wars prequel. It isn’t that kind of shitty. It’s likeably shitty, almost pleasantly shitty. It’s director is embarrassed by it, but loves it just the same, like a father loves a son who can’t hit the baseball worth a fuck. We can love it, too. We can pity it, hold it close to our breasts and stroke it and whisper our forgiveness for its many shortcomings. But in our hearts we must know, though we would never speak it aloud where Mallrats could hear, that it’s one of the shittiest films ever made.