Filmmaker Kevin Smith’s most notable achievement is to have proved that pop-culture inside jokes are now enough of a shared language that they can appeal to a mass audience. Thus the success of last year’s Clerks, the weeny-budget, black-and-white comedy that writer-director Smith saw turn into one of 1994’s most acclaimed independent films, and thus now Mallrats Smith’s debut with a bigger budget, color film, and name actors. Well, one name actor: Shannen Doherty, late of Beverly Hills, 90210 and here making a bid for hip-slacker credentials by playing a relatively small role as a girlfriend to Jason Lee, a real-life champion skateboarder making an impressively charming acting debut.
Lee and Jeremy London (from the TV series I’ll Fly Away) play two lackadaisical chums hanging out at a suburban mall. As was true of Clerks, Mallrats is short on plot and long on dialogue. In the new movie, Lee’s Brodie is bummed because Doherty’s Rene has dumped him; London’s T.S. is super-bummed because his chick, Brandi (Claire Forlani), isn’t going to go on a long-planned trip to L.A.’s Universal Studios tour, where T.S. planned to propose marriage during a ride in the Jaws exhibit.
Lacking girls, the guys head to that indoor collection of stores that serves as these young fellows’ primary source of comfort and joy — or as Brodie says upon entering the mall, ”I love the smell of commerce in the morning!” What follows is a series of virtually random scenes, with Brodie and T.S. running into other girls (most memorably Joey Lauren Adams as a sleepy-eyed sexpot who likes to try on underpants in the middle of the lingerie store), other guys (including the dopehead duo Jay and Silent Bob from Clerks), and Marvel Comics publisher Stan Lee, who plays himself, visiting the mall to sign autographs at a comic-book store. (Mallrats teems with arcane superhero references, every one of them assiduously accurate.)
Smith’s dialogue contrasts vulgar jokes with mock-formal vocabulary; as a director, he favors startling sight gags. (I am not easily shocked, but the sight of Priscilla Barnes, once perkiness itself on TV’s Three’s Company, in the role here of a topless fortune-teller with three nipples, was truly unnerving.) Whenever you’re not chuckling, Mallrats leaves you wondering at the emotional emptiness of suburban youth culture, as well as at the complexity of it.