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JULY 19, 1999: 

Mallrats

D: Kevin Smith (1995)
with Shannen Doherty, Jeremy London, Jason Lee, Claire Forlani, Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith, Stan Lee.

Critics seem to divide into two neat camps over writer/director Kevin Smith. There are those who think he is a guttermouth loser portraying the same, with a home-movie style and almost no narrative control. They dismiss him as a drab comic book chronicler of the boring routine of low-life characters from the convenience store to the mall, with all the intellectual vigor associated with those institutions. They are uninterested in him and in the films that he makes.

Others think Smith is a popular-culture poet with a brilliant ear for dialogue and a brash, in-your-face, New Jersey cinematic style that has matured consistently over his three movies from Clerks (1994) to Chasing Amy (1997).

The second group divides again, into those who think his second feature, Mallrats, defines sophomore slump and a minority who defend it as the natural, if a little rude and crude, progression in his New Jersey trilogy (Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy). Even Smith seems to fall into the former camp -- when introducing Chasing Amy at Sundance, he more or less apologized for Mallrats.

I don't agree. As a director, Smith, with the obvious influence of Richard Linklater, reminds me most of a slacker Preston Sturges. Gorgeous, gushing speeches pour out of his characters' mouths. These symphonies of talking come out of daily life, offering beautifully written, very funny dialogues on ordinary topics. Quentin Tarantino writes the same kind of dialogue, but his hard-boiled sensibilities mythologize it -- two killers talking about popular culture is a surprise; two obsessed comic fans doing the same is mundane. Except, of course, the way Smith writes it.

Mallrats is set in one day, which begins with our two young heroes both losing their girlfriends. T.S. (London) because he hysterically objects when Brandi (Forlani) agrees to be the bachelorette prize in a Dating Game pilot her father is televising in hopes of landing a network deal. Rene (Doherty) finally gets tired of having to slip in and out of Brodie's (Lee) bedroom while his mother, a woman to whom she's never even been introduced, is asleep. Brodie is a loudmouth, obsessed comic book/popular culture collector with an overly aggressive attitude and neither job nor ambition. As is the way in Smith films, T.S. is his sidekick, though he seemingly drives the plot. Entering the mall, determined to thwart the TV show, they consult with Jay and Silent Bob (Mewes and Smith himself).

Now stop here. If you are familiar with Jay and Silent Bob through Smith's films and comic books, you can skip the next part. For the rest of you, Jay and Silent Bob are true slacker superheroes, capable of magical and mystical feats. Often brilliant and always perceptive, they are also classic suburban losers. Jay dresses like a skate freak, while Bob favors a full-length leather jacket over the same. They hang out at malls and convenience stores, they deal a little weed, they listen to and sometimes dance to the boom box Bob usually carries. They are capable of anything. The sweetest part of any Smith movie is Jay and Bob. Here, they are more comic book characters than in the other films, but they are also more central to the film.

T.S. and Brodie ask Jay and Silent Bob to wreck the TV show. The pair say they were going to anyway, on principle. Living in New Jersey -- I grew up in Teaneck and spent summers at my grandmother's in Lakewood, near the shore -- is endless talking, walking, hanging out, and planning plans that usually go nowhere. I imagine it's not that different growing up elsewhere, but as a comic book collector raised there, the poetry of Smith's dialogue is my native tongue. This is a celebration of life hanging out at the mall, of routine surburban life as the outsized adventure one is always pretending it is.

Smith has great taste in actors and skill in writing for them. Lee, a skateboard champ who debuted in this movie, is an offensive galvanizing center, with all the other actors contributing to the cause. I respect audiences who don't like the film. Mallrats, at one point, gets way too gross and juvenile for me. It makes sense that even those who like Smith's work would find this too loud and cheap. But from Silent Bob's Batman dive and the boys beating up the Easter Bunny to Brodie's spiritual talk with comic great Stan Lee (playing himself), the film had me laughing out loud as well as marveling (no pun intended) at its wit and style. Still, I wouldn't recommend this as your introduction to Smith. Chasing Amy is the most accomplished work; Clerks just shoots off ideas and energy. This is crude and ill-mannered, funny and smart, but that is all part of Jersey and a part of growing up, and those are the stories Smith is telling. (Remind me, by the way, to tell you about when I got to spend an afternoon in a bar about 30 years ago as my mentor, Otto O. Binder, and Stan Lee chatted.) --Louis Black



Home Fries

D: Dean Parisot (1998)
with Drew Barrymore, Luke Wilson, Jake Busey, Catherine O'Hara.

Romance. Hijinks. Hamburgers. Three plot elements that are rarely employed together and perhaps with good reason. Not to say that Home Fries isn't a good movie, but it tends to lack a sense of direction despite the honed cast.

The film opens with Sally (Barrymore, with bright red, curly locks) a pregnant drive-thru clerk at Burgo-Matic. Not too far away, the father-to-be, a wealthy (and very married) cigarette manufacturer, is being pursued by a menacing helicopter. Little does he know that its pilots are his stepsons Angus (Busey) and Dorian (Wilson) just trying to scare some sense into him and vindicate their mother (O'Hara). The poor guy dies from fright, and the event is broadcast into Sally's drive-thru headset.

A paranoid and quite psychotic Angus soon forces Dorian to take a job there to find out who may have heard the commotion. Soon, Sally and he develop a lovey-dovey bond while Angus and mom plot death for the late tobacco czar's mistress (still not knowing that it's the unsuspecting Sally).

A slightly complicated story but not without some redeeming qualities. In fact, were it not for the choice players, this may have been a total loss. But each actor brings such a vitality to his/her role that the film becomes somewhat entertaining. O'Hara is excellent as the manipulative mother. Likewise Busey, as the bent, semi-Oedipal Angus. The film, however, struggles to retain a quirky wit but succeeds only as a predictable farce.

Aside from that, the dialogue between Busey and Wilson seems as if it were lifted from Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket (which featured a mellow Wilson opposite another extreme, buzz-cut character played by real-life brother Owen). Smart at times, funny at others, Home Fries maintains a semblance of energy, just enough to make it watchable, yet not particularly memorable. --Mike Emery


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