'Mallrats' hangs around, without a clue

October 20, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Beyond bummer. Beyond lame. Beyond, even, the new one, "whack," whatever the hell it means. That's where Kevin Smith's "Mallrats" lives.

The movie cost about 2,000 times more than his "Clerks," but it's about 1,000 times less funny. Too bad. He's on to something, and he knows what works and what doesn't. But under some obligation to go mainstream because of the money the professionals at Gramercy have given him, he lets this one simper out of control until it crashes and burns. And it's never as funny in the last hour as it is in the first half hour.

The situation is somewhat similar to "Clerks," certain evidence that Smith is peculiarly drawn to the static. Color him inert. He is entropy. What goes up, must come down, unless it's Kevin Smith.

Anyhow, in "Clerks" essentially two Gen Xers working in service economy jobs miles beneath their levels of capability but miles above their level of maturity just more or less riffed on how their lives stunk, their girls hated them, their parents were jerks and all customers (they ran a video store and a convenience mart) were aliens from Uranus. It was tough, vulgar, dirty (nearly to the NC-17 level), raunchy and funny.

Meanwhile, tiny nuggets -- kernels, almost -- of narrative were thrown in to give the movie an illusion of movement, but essentially it was two very bright, very funny, very unmotivated kids speaking fast while expressing attitudes that might be called nihilism cut with cynicism and mixed with vaudeville. Their very pose of utter ennui, utter indifference to all things human, vegetable or mineral, was funny.

In "Mallrats," the same relationship is at the center of the film, but the budget requires Smith to invent an actual plot. Bad career move, Smith.

Again we have two highly intelligent, highly unmotivated youths with attitudes like 400-pound squids coiled about their grungy necks. On an average day, it's difficult for either of them actually to venture out of the bedroom. One's girlfriend obligingly crawls out the window before Mom checks in. Neither has jobs, prospects, hopes or much awareness of being alive: On the other hand, they're very good at Sega, and one has a terrific comic book collection.

On the day the story opens (and closes), the two are punted by their girlfriends. Ouch. The two -- supreme cynic and layabout Brodie (Jason Lee, who could play Holden Caulfield if they ever get the script ironed out) and dumber, sweeter T. S. (Jeremy London) -- at last have a mission: win back Rene (Shannen Doherty) and Brandi (Claire Forlani).

Battleground: a New Jersey mall (which is actually a Minnesota mall).

As long as the two boys are bumbling through the mall, coping with their suddenly complex emotional states and issuing dense clouds of anguish, anger, despair and heartache, the movie is very amusing. Smith (who also appears as "Silent Bob," a Belushi-like comic-relief job) writes smart, nasty dialogue, and the two actors have the high verbal facility to keep the numbers going. They could graduate to Tarantino without a problem.

Alas, Smith is at his worst in coming up with interesting wrinkles. He settles on an oafish, unbelievable plot that's never remotely funny enough to excuse its banality. It seems that Brandi's dad, played bald-headed, red-faced and out-to-lunch by usually dependable Michael Rooker, is a TV producer. He's shooting the pilot to a game show at the mall, and it's a parody (a lame, sad, witless, crude, bitter, foolish parody, I might add) of "The Dating Game."

T.S. and Brodie must con their way on so that T.S. can win back the love of Brandi, who is the contestant. Completely unfunny.

But the strangest thing in the movie isn't the plot, it's Stan Lee's hair. Yes, the Stan Lee who thought up "Spiderman" and other comic book stuff; he appears in an inspirational cameo and seems a decent, likable guy.

But what the heck is going on with that hair? It's stranger than Letterman's new haircut. I don't think it's a toupee, either. Possibly implants stitched into the crown with the perfect regularity of a highway through Iowa, then combed straight back over a balding spot? At any rate, it's so spectacularly odd it blew the movie around it away. After Lee left, I was wondering: What mall is this? Where are we now?

'Mallrats'

Starring Jason Lee and Shannen Doherty

Directed by Kevin Smith

Released by Gramercy

Rated R (profanity, nudity, sexual content)

**

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