“So what’s he going to do next,” we were all asking about Kevin Smith following his debut hit Clerks. It was easy to see him going back to the well and making something stylistically similar, a low-concept dialogue-driven story of the wacky characters inhabiting some other service industry or area of everyday, non-extraordinary life.
I remember reading about Mallrats in a copy of Variety, which was delivered to the second-run theater I worked at at the time. It was given some sort of description that explained it was about the slackers who hang out at the mall all day and we all thought yeah, that sounds about right.
The story is actually much more complex than Clerks. Instead of just three or four characters who are interacting, Smith this time expanded things a bit, an effort that was helped by working with the decent budget Universal gave him. So we follow Brodie (Jason Lee) and TS (Jeremy London) as they hang around the mall all day. Both guys have been dumped by their respective girlfriends and so Brodie convinces his friend the best way to deal with that is with some aimless retail wandering. While there they scheme to bust up a dating show TS’s ex Brandi (Claire Florani) has been signed up to participate in by her father and try to release Brodie’s ex Rene (Shannon Doherty) from the grips of a store manager with less than pure motives, both efforts helped (kind of) by Jay and Silent Bob, the only hold-overs from Smith’s debut film.
When it came time to market Mallrats I’m sure Universal wasn’t quite sure how to position it. After all, Clerks was a foul-mouthed, sex-obsessed black-and-white movie with no stars and little through-line to the story. Now they had what Smith has described as his homage to the teen sex comedies of his youth, movies like Porky’s and Meatballs along with the sweeter stories of John Hughes.
That’s exactly how the movie is sold in the trailer, as an outrageous sex comedy about young adults whiling away the hours at the mall. There’s almost no story here – we don’t really get anything about the breakups or why Brodie and TS are hanging out at the mall all day – it’s just a collection of funny scenes from the movie, presented independent of any connective tissue. You get some bits of character development, but not much. It’s all about flashy visuals and silly moments, not about selling the story in any meaningful way.
Similarly, the theatrical poster isn’t so concerned with selling anything coherent to the audience. Instead it shows off the movie’s comic book DNA in explicit style. Formatted like a comic cover, all the main characters are arranged in order of importance to the story, with Brodie at the top and Rene clinging to his leg. Arrayed around them are TS, Rene, Jay, Silent Bob and the rest of the supporting characters, including Stan Lee in a special pop-out toward the bottom. The title is splashed across the top like a comic book title and copy to the site promises “Superhero anatomy! Topless fortune telling! Bunny Bashing! And more!” That’s about as much of the plot that’s on display here and those are all side stories, small pieces of the overall picture. There’s nothing here about trying to win back your girlfriend or trying to stick it to commerce or anything else that’s central to the plot.
So the campaign as a whole seemed to be actively hiding the story, preferring instead to sell the audience on a series of one-off gags that have little to nothing to do to the core story. Mallrats may not be Smith’s finest film (that’s Chasing Amy) but it still has more going on than what’s shown here. The campaign isn’t interested in anything that Smith seemed to have in mind about a sweet story, instead focusing on a series of jokes and moments that have little to do with each other and don’t sell anything about what audiences are signing on for. Yes, the movie is a lot brighter and “comedic” than Clerks, but this takes that too far, burying anything original or interesting.