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Slacking Off

Mainstream producers revile young auteurs. Sure, a certain prestige is conferred upon those who work with a Gus Van Sant or a Steven Soderbergh, and these associations tend to guarantee respectful treatment from both sweater-clad TV "critics" and minor-league Andrew Sarris wannabes. But they also force money men to contend with a plethora of unpleasant distractions--such as an insistence upon artistic integrity--that have little to do with the process of transforming a few reels filled with celluloid into stacks of bullion. Studio types don't mind making good movies, but they'd prefer to make profitable ones. What they really need to find, then, are young filmmakers who understand this distinction.

Like, for instance, Kevin Smith, the 24-year-old writer/director behind Mallrats. Smith first appeared on radar screens following last year's Clerks, an independent comedy with a microscopic budget (Smith financed most of the picture himself) and enough verve to stand out above the portentous offerings that tend to dominate the film-festival circuit. At less than ninety minutes, it was twice as long as it should have been, but that hardly mattered. After all, Clerks offered something for everyone. Reviewers, reassured by the name of Smith's production company, Alphaville (nothing impresses a film connoisseur more than a nod toward Jean-Luc Godard), saw its stark, black-and-white look and deadpan setups as an intriguing creative choice, a la Jim Jarmusch. The average viewer, meanwhile, was thrilled that the film's text rejected weighty issues in favor of scatological banter. That Clerks was threatened with an NC-17 rating because of its language was an added bonus. Suddenly it went from being an offhand lark to a First Amendment test case.

With Mallrats, however, Smith demonstrates that what was seen as the tip of his creative iceberg the first time around was actually the whole damn thing. Like director Robert Rodriguez, who followed El Mariachi, his cheeky 1994 indie hit, with a virtual remake of the same material, this year's Desperado, Smith cribs vigorously from his earlier concoction. Mallrats doesn't just feature Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith himself), two characters lifted directly from Clerks. It also comes close to duplicating its predecessor's plot: Scenes of protagonists T.S. (Jeremy London) and Brodie (Jason Lee) alternately complaining about and pining for women practically constitute Clerks flashbacks.

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Written and directed by Kevin Smith. With Shannen Doherty, Jeremy London, Jason Lee, Claire Forlani and Michael Rooker.

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Even the film's static setting is a rehash: Unless you're grading on the curve, Smith's decision to stage the majority of Mallrats' action in a suburban mall, as opposed to the convenience-store backdrop of Clerks, shouldn't count as originality. Moreover, the dialogue is spiked with a generous supply of Clerks-like profanity. Before the opening credits of Mallrats roll, viewers have already heard a joke involving large intestines and gerbils that effectively preps them for the sophistication to come.

The most prominent Mallrats cast member, Beverly Hills 90210 reject Shannen Doherty, dives enthusiastically into Smith's world. But although she does her best to live up to the bad-girl reputation that the tabloids have helped her manufacture, she's left stranded by Smith, who gives her a name (Rene) but doesn't bother to write a character to go along with it. Doherty delights in reeling off the obscenities that Aaron Spelling wouldn't let her use, and she rips into her big sex scene like a lioness dismembering a warthog. But after the film's first half hour, Rene virtually vanishes--and when she finally reappears, she's left with nothing to do but bat her eyes at Brodie. This couldn't have been easy, since Lee, a professional skateboarder making his first film, recalls an escaped mental patient more often than the daft but lovable slacker he's supposed to be playing. His small, dead eyes are disturbingly inexpressive, and his idea of delivering a punchline involves shouting out the words without the slightest inflection.

Unlike London and Claire Forlani, as T.S.'s bland girlfriend, Brandi, Lee commands attention, but mainly because he seems so desperately in need of medical treatment. Michael Rooker, on the other hand, rouses only sympathy. He's a strong actor seen to good advantage in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Mississippi Burning, but in his Mallrats role (Svenning, Brandi's game-show-producer father), he seems desperate and pathetic, like Rip Taylor making a cameo in a topless-car-wash movie.

As a director, Smith comes up with a visual style that's slightly less singular than any random episode of Simon and Simon. At times he even has difficulty getting his shots to match; the result leads to jump-cuts that have more in common with Ed Wood than with Godard. His staging is just as amateurish. A concluding sequence involving the taping of Svenning's game show, Truth or Date, has all the vitality of a city council meeting. Smith, though, may have the last laugh. Mallrats is a disposable piece of product, but that's exactly what Hollywood understands. No doubt the job offers are already pouring in.

Bill Gallo is on vacation

 
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