20 Years Later, Kevin Smith's 'Mallrats' Still Resonates Despite Itself

'Mallrats' predicted our cultural obsessions 20 years early, but to what end?

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In 1995, malls were pretty cool. I used to head to the Cherry Creek Mall in Denver with my pals and no real plan. Sometimes we’d see a movie, other times we’d browse the CDs at Sam Goody or eat at Steak Escape. Mostly we just sat around, smoked cigarettes, and did nothing. It was only a matter of time until a ‘90s film was set in that universe, and Kevin Smith did it with Mallrats — a movie that’s still an outsized cultural touchstone.

Like its generational antecedent Fast Times at Ridgemont High, you could chalk up the relative relevance of Mallrats to nostalgia. Malls today aren’t what they used to be (see: Amazon and online shopping.) It seems the only time you head to the mall is for a sale or if you’ve got a birthday party you’re headed to in an hour. Any kids who might be ironically hanging out are likely members of a throwback collective, wearing Hypercolor and playing arcade games.

In Mallrats, we get a bunch of that ‘90s vibe. It’s like a visual Oasis song: there’s T.S. (Jeremy London) with a flannel shirt wrapped around his waist; there’s Brody (Jason Lee) playing a Sega Genesis hockey game; there’s Willam (Ethan Suplee) trying to see a Magic Eye sailboat (a gag that, fittingly, may have been lifted from a Seinfeld plotline.

Still, like its shopping mall elder Fast Times, Mallrats goes deeper than wistful flashbacks.

The movie, itself, isn’t very well-done. It’s poorly acted, there’s a thin plot, a preposterous ending, and slapstick comedy that is dated now but couldn’t have been funny then — even blasted on some of Jay-strength blunts. Critics were not kind. But, Smith casts a wide net that grabs just about every dude he can, guaranteeing cult status. Comic book geeks know they’re in for a treat as the opening credits roll, with Shannen Doherty getting her own 90210-themed cartoon cover and Stan Lee getting announced as Stan Lee. Pensive types can latch onto the moments of quick dialogue thick with SAT adjectives. In theory, the movie is against the mainstream, but it’s unclear that the mainstream Ben Affleck represents ever existed — or even could.

Brody and T.S. are man-children, dumped by their girlfriends and lost in the world outside of the mall. Unemployed and broke, Brody sleeps late, lives with his mother and says semi-deep stuff like, “I’m playing the role of the concerned guy,” while balancing it out with: “What can I say? I love tits.” He, especially, is instant identifiability. The smart slacker whose apathy is fueled by being spoiled and hating hierarchies. The adversarial father of T.S.’s love interest probably puts it best: “You have no absolutely ambition and no chance of making it in the real world.” Years later, there are probably more Brodys and T.S.’s than there were in 1995. “Timeless” seems a bit over-the-top but the resonance of their attributes today might explain why Smith has decided to make a sequel.

Smith wrote funny and intelligent conversations about Lois Lane’s inability to handle pregnancy, concerns over children riding escalators, spooning as metaphor, sex in the back of Volkswagens, and masturbating while a plane is going down. We learn what a “stinkpalm” is. Ben Affleck plays a huge dickhead. Jay and Silent Bob kick ass. And, against all odds, our deadbeat heroes get the girls, the money, the life. It might not work out that way for us, but there’s nothing wrong with looking into the Magic Eye painting and seeing what you want.

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