After a savage, satiric assault on convenience store culture in “Clerks,” writer-director Kevin Smith takes aim at hangin’ at the shopping arcade in “Mallrats.” While admittedly ragged and ribald, it’s a picture with an innate charm and honesty that should win over audiences. It definitely plays to a young adult crowd and, based on his earlier success d’estime, should combine with some crossover arthouse appeal for solid midrange B.O. returns and strong ancillary action.
The filmmaker wastes no time at setting the tone, assailing the audience with crude tales of cats and the retelling of a bizarre swimming pool death. For the uninitiated, it will be difficult to ascertain how serious to take these moments or the frank, graphic language employed.
The narrative and visual styles are meant to shock. But the deft sleight-of-hand here prevents the audience from becoming alienated one from the characters. Peeling away the contempo trappings, it’s still basically an old-fashioned boy-loses-girl saga and how he proceeds to get her back. In fact, it’s two boys who are best friends losing girlfriends on the same day.
T.S. (Jeremy London) is all set to head off to Florida with Brandi (Claire Forlani) when she informs him about the freak death of a friend who was set to appear on her father’s gameshow pilot. When she tells him she has stepped in, he goes ballistic. He’s sure that her dad (Michael Rooker) somehow arranged the whole thing.
Across town, video addict Brodie (Jason Lee) is camping out in his room engrossed in a game. He just barely registers that Rene (Shannon Doherty) is fed up with his inattentiveness. She literally has to spell it out for him in a note as she departs from his basement window.
Angry and depressed, the young men seek refuge in the security of the spiffy Eden Prairie Mall. But there is no respite. The TV pilot is to film at that locale and the girlfriends, as well as their entire peer group, are much in evidence in the confined environs.
It’s pretty much a mad sprint from that point to reach an upbeat ending. Along the way, incident and characters dot the terrain, ranging from a youth absorbed in an optical illusion that doesn’t scan for him, a 15-year-old girl writing a comprehensive saga on male virility, two returning prankmeisters from “Clerks” and Marvel Comics honcho Stan Lee as himself.
The strands finally come together during the live taping of “Truth or Date,” a”Dating Game” clone in which the boys maneuver their way onto the panel. It’s a wonderful set piece and a tour de force of outrageous comedy.
Smith has obvious affection for his “Mallrats,” who, as one nasty character comments, “have no shopping motivation.” The ensemble cast is uniformly excellent, including such usually overdrawn youth movie miscreants as adults and heavies.
But Smith’s seeming ace as a filmmaker is an ability to make assets of limitations. He has a real instinct for how to use non-pros and inexperienced actors. And he turns brightly lit interiors rife with pastel colors into a virtue without clobbering us over the head about the hollowness of the setting or its denizens.
“Mallrats” is effortlessly engaging in its totally unself-conscious manner and humor. It truly remains nonjudgmental, placing the people and circumstances in our faces and offering them refreshingly at face value.