Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Film Appreciation - The Smell of Commerce

Cody Hamman has Film Appreciation for Kevin Smith's Mallrats and love for its comic book-loving lead.

I don't get offended by vulgar language in movies, so sometimes it slips my mind that other people might be put off by that sort of thing. When I put on Die Hard at my paternal grandmother's house, I thought I was showing her an awesome movie. I didn't expect her to object to all the F-bombs that were being dropped by John McClane, as I hadn't really noticed them. And what could be inappropriate about watching Cabin Fever in the middle of a family get-together, or From Dusk Till Dawn at my nephew's birthday party? Well, those movies certainly got reactions from other people in those situations. Another time when it might seem like I had a lapse in judgment was my first viewing of Kevin Smith's second feature film, Mallrats. Even though I had become a fan of his first movie Clerks the year before and knew how vulgar the dialogue had been in that, when I rented Mallrats as soon as it hit VHS in early 1996 I decided to put the movie on while my maternal grandmother was in the room.

The first time I watched Mallrats I was twelve years old and watched it with my grandma.

Thankfully, given those circumstances, Mallrats isn't quite as vulgar as Clerks was. There are still frank discussions of sexual subjects, but it comes off as being slightly "cleaner" than its predecessor. Mallrats feels a little more accessible than Clerks in general, since it was released by a subsidiary of a major studio (Universal), was shot on color 35mm film rather than grainy black and white 16mm, and has a much sillier tone.

The accessibility didn't translate to good box office numbers; Mallrats actually did very poorly during its theatrical run. I don't know how I missed seeing it on the big screen myself. I was already a fan of Clerks when it was coming out, I remember seeing TV spots, I wanted to see the movie, I recognized Jay and Silent Bob (played by Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith) in the ads - the end credits of Clerks had said "Jay and Silent Bob will return in Dogma", but here they were showing up in this Mallrats movie instead of one called Dogma. Maybe it didn't even reach theatres in my area.

Regardless of how it came to be that my first viewing wasn't until VHS, I became a lifelong fan of Mallrats during that viewing, and grandma seemed to be entertained by it as well.

The story begins with two break-ups and a connection to Clerks. First T.S. Quint (Jeremy London) is dumped by his girlfriend Brandi Svenning (Claire Forlani) when they have an argument over how much control her father Jared (Michael Rooker), who hates T.S., has over her life. Brandi has agreed to appear on the Dating Game rip-off her father has put together called Truth or Date, which would cause her to miss the trip to Florida she and T.S. were supposed to go on - and T.S. had been planning to propose to her during this trip. The girl who was initially supposed to be on Truth or Date suddenly passed away the night before, and this is the Clerks connection. When the clerks in that movie left work to attend a wake, it was this girl's wake. She died of an embolism while in a swimming pool, and we find out here that she was swimming laps because T.S. had mentioned to her that the camera makes a person look heavier than they are.

The second break-up is between comic book-loving slacker Brodie Bruce (Jason Lee) and his girlfriend Rene Mosier (Shannen Doherty), who has been put off my Brodie's lack of ambition and the fact that he has never introduced her to his mother, who he still lives with. He has Rene sneak in and out of the house to avoid his mom.

Brodie being a mallrat like the title suggests, he thinks a trip over to the Eden Prairie Mall is the perfect way for himself and his buddy T.S. to get their minds off their now-ex-girlfriends. But it doesn't quite work out that way.

Kevin had based the Clerks character Randal Graves on his friend Bryan Johnson, who these days hosts the Tell 'Em Steve-Dave podcast in the SModcast network. The template for Brodie Bruce was Kevin's friend Walt Flanagan, who co-hosts that podcast with Johnson. Johnson and Flanagan both make an appearance in Mallrats, Johnson as a comic book store employee named Steve-Dave and Flanagan as his lackey Walt the Fanboy, who tells his pal to "Tell 'em, Steve-Dave!" when he's having a confrontation with Brodie and T.S.

Having been a comic book fan for as long as I can remember, I loved Brodie from the moment he started referencing comic books and superheroes - especially since he primarily focuses on Marvel characters, and I have always had a greater interest in Marvel than in its "distinguished competition". I had already related to the characters in Clerks, and now here was another guy I could relate to, one who shared even more of my personal interests. Like Randal Graves before him, Brodie Bruce is one of my all-time favorite movie characters. This was Jason Lee's first real acting job, and he proved himself to be capable and worthy of being a lead actor. He is hilarious as Brodie.

Brodie and T.S. don't just wander around the mall aimlessly. Sure, they do some of that, but they also find out that there are some major events going on at the mall that day. A large stage is being erected in the mall because that's where Truth or Date is going to be shot. This gives T.S. a chance to confront Jared about his meddling in his daughter's relationships, and will also give T.S. a chance to cross paths with Brandi herself later on. Meanwhile, Brodie notices that Rene is also at the mall, hanging out with Shannon Hamilton (Ben Affleck), the guy who runs a store called Fashionable Male and has already introduced Rene to his mother. Shannon is not a good guy, though. He is secretly scheming to talk Rene into some uncomfortable sex, and wants to beat Brodie up because he is annoyed that he sees this guy roaming the mall all the time without a shopping agenda.


And by the way, Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee, played by the real Stan Lee, is making a signing appearance at the comic book store Steve-Dave works at. Brodie is blown away, and it was awesome to see a movie character who shared my reverence for "Stan the Man".

While Brodie and T.S. are both seeking to win back their exes (even if Brodie is too cool to admit that he wants Rene back), Jay and Silent Bob are also at the mall, planning to bring that game show stage crashing down. They were already planning to do this even before they found out Brodie and T.S. would like to see the game show get sabotaged, it's just something to do. Jay and Silent Bob are different than they were in Clerks, they're much lighter characters and their part of the story is very cartoonish. Jay is dropping his own unique and nonsensical catchphrases ("Snoogans", "Snootch to the nootch") and Silent Bob is pulling things like Batman's Batarang out of his coat. Silent Bob also tries to emulate Batman by jumping off the rafters of the mall with a rope tied around his waist while trying to destroy the game show stage, and is also desperately trying to prove that he has Jedi skills. While Jay and Silent Bob had some good moments in Clerks, I think it was the Mallrats version of the characters that really won viewers' hearts. I know I liked them better here than in Clerks.

Jay and Silent Bob even beat up the mall's Easter Bunny in front of a bunch of kids because they think the guy in the costume has wronged Brodie. That's loyal friendship.

Around these core characters there is a fun bunch of oddballs. Ethan Suplee takes over the role producer Scott Mosier played in Clerks, Willam "Snowball" Black, and I didn't even realize this was supposed to be the same character until listening to the audio commentary years later. Suplee's performance is very different from Mosier's, and he spends most of his screen time trying to see the hidden image in a Magic Eye poster. Those never worked for me, either. Renee Humphrey beat out Jennifer Love Hewitt for the role of Tricia Jones, sister of a character we met in Clerks. Tricia is 15 years old and writing a book called "Bore-gasm: A Study of the '90s Male's Sexual Prowess", which has earned her a $20,000 advance and has required her to have sex with inappropriate partners, like Shannon Hamilton, as research. Joey Lauren Adams plays Brandi's friend / T.S.'s ex Gwen Turner, who has some advice to give them both - and once cheated on T.S., right in front of other people attending a costume party, with a Clerks character. Sven-Ole Thorsen is legendary security guard LaFours, who is the only thing standing in the way of Jay and Silent Bob on their stage destroying mission.

At one point, Brodie and T.S. bounce over to a flea market that Brodie calls "the dirt mall" for a life-changing (for T.S.) consultation with a topless fortune teller called Miss Ivannah (Priscilla Barnes), who claims her third nipple is the source of her abilities. When grandma told people about this crazy comedy I had subjected her to, this was the scene she described to them.

Mallrats eventually builds up to the taping of that game show, which turns out to be a different sort of spectacle than Mr. Svenning intended when Brodie and T.S. end up on stage as two of the three suitors up for a date with Brandi. The third suitor is Clerks star Brian O'Halloran as Gill Hicks, a relative of his Clerks character Dante Hicks.

But before we get to that game show, Brodie manages to have a personal conversation with Stan Lee, who gives him relationship advice in a way Brodie understands: by discussing the emotions behind the creation of classic comic book characters. I knew Stan Lee from the pages of comic books at this time, I hadn't really seen him in action, and I was in awe when I first saw his scenes in Mallrats. Much like Brodie is while talking to him. There was recently a wonderful callback to Stan Lee's role in this film in Captain Marvel.

I don't have an emotional connection to Mallrats like the one I have with Clerks, but I do love the movie and find it a joy to sit through even now, more than twenty years and many viewings down the line. This was Kevin's attempt to do something along the lines of Animal House and '80s sex comedies, and it's a lot of fun.

I've watched the movie with many different viewing companions over the years, but that viewing I had with my grandma in 1996 remains a very special one.

For the tenth anniversary, an extended cut of the film was released that has an alternate opening scene and runs 30 minutes longer than the theatrical cut. While that one's an interesting oddity to check out, I wouldn't recommend doing so until after you're familiar with the original cut of the movie. The theatrical cut works much better than the extended cut.

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