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‘Mallrats’ at 25: ‘Clerks’ with a Bigger Budget- and a Lot Less Success

Superhero Anatomy! Topless Fortune Telling! Bunny Bashing! And More!

Kevin Smith’s Clerks arrived in 1994 as something that happened a handful of times in the 1990s: It marked the clear arrival on the scene of a truly original cinematic voice. 

Smith’s follow-up, Mallrats, arrived almost exactly one year later and it was, needless to say, not greeted nearly as rapturously. It was the first Kevin Smith movie that the public turned on, but it was far from the last.

The film retained some aspects of what made Clerks special- the pair of dudes hanging out, the raunch, the pop culture references, the plot playing out over the course of one day, and Jay and Silent Bob – but jettisoned most of the others, from the tiny budget to the lack of recognizable actors to the DIY ethos. And while Clerks was mostly timeless, Mallrats consists of all sorts of elements, from Magic Eye posters to people hanging out at a mall for no reason, that firmly moors it in 1995. 

Filmed not in New Jersey but rather Minnesota, Mallrats was shot in color, and without any of the low-budget dollar stretching that was so much a part of Clerks‘ success. And beyond that, Mallrats relied heavily on broad slapstick, rather than leaning on raunchy wit as Clerks did. And while Clerks had more than its share of gross-out stuff, it was much funnier than what was on offer in Mallrats. And of course, there’s also some stuff that’s a bit gross in retrospect, especially a finale that hinges not only on statutory rape but on the wide broadcast of a sex tape depicting such. 

The film’s stand-ins for Dante and Randall were TS (Jeremy London) and Brodie (Jason Lee), who early in the film are both dumped by their respective girlfriends (Claire Forlani and Shannen Doherty.) They decide to then go and hang out at a local mall, where the day’s agenda includes trying to get their girlfriends back, and also to sabotage the taping of a Dating Game-like game show. 

Also in the film were such now-familiar faces as Ben Affleck (as a villain who wanted to have sex with women “in a very uncomfortable place”) Michael Rooker, Ethan Suplee, and Joey Lauren Adams. 

Mallrats cost $6.1 million, compared to Clerks, which famously had a budget of around $27,000. But that extra money couldn’t buy laughs or much respect for this particular effort. The film made just over $2 million at the box office and was widely seen as a failure. Smith even apologized for it at an awards show the following year, although he would later back off that apology. 

Smith’s next film, 1997’s Chasing Amy, was much better, and even had a surprisingly progressive viewpoint about male jealousy and sexual fluidity (though I understand this view is not held by all.) It hinted at a mature turn in Smith’s work, even if the director, these days, is usually making either bizarre larks (Tusk, Yoga Hosers) or endless revisiting of his previous characters.

Some Smith fans have tried to reclaim Mallrats as a misunderstood masterpiece. And Smith, as with all of his projects, has both revisited the characters in endless spinoffs- most recently last years’ Jay and Silent Bob Reboot – and talked constantly about making a sequel movie or series. 

Give Mallrats this- it pioneered the idea of having Stan Lee make a movie cameo- and even let him stick around on screen for more than a few seconds. True, Lee tells a story about being inspired to create superheroes by an old girlfriend that isn’t true, but then that’s also true of most stories Lee told throughout his life. 

Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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