The Fine Art of Sucking

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WE ARE AT this anti-historical, binary moment when everything is either Excellent or Sucks. So the modestly contemplative person, willing to spend a little more time on judgments, inevitably wonders what's in between. This is especially pertinent in the case of grungy ol' Kevin Smith, who with Clerks earlier this year made something mostly Excellent because--in ordinary terms--it looked like it Sucked. Cheap, black-and-white with mushy sound, featuring locker-room rudeness and no true actors, it nosed around a particularly scuzzy corner of the back room of careerism. In short, in was a bottom-feeder and proud of it, a "Seinfeld" for no-hopers.

So Smith gets some attention, makes some money, and now--no surprise--he's made a movie with a bigger budget, in color, with even some people who almost qualify as stars (Shannen Doherty and TV game show guy Art James); he's moved from the lonely, drab convenience store to a generic mall (our own Eden Prairie Center, looking more generic than ever). The resulting film tries to Suck in order to be Excellent. But mostly it just Sucks.

It's the old trap of one-upism. Having shocked an audience once, Smith has to find new ways to shock at a higher frequency. But when his turf is already limited--cheapness, slackism, '70s knockoff references--it's hard to pump up that volume. Clerks was basically a string of insults, arguments and complaints, while Mallrats has an actual plot. As Smith lays out a day in the life of two layabouts who've lost their girlfriends and try to find redemption at the mall, I look for true talismans and landmarks of his pop-cult fixation. Where is Steve Guttenberg, for example? How about Joyce DeWitt?

Shannen Doherty's presence is a worthy gesture. She's the equivalent of Rob Lowe in Wayne's World or Paul (Pee-wee) Reubens in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But Doherty has a reduced role as the girlfriend of Brodie (skateboard champ Jason Lee), and while she gets in her licks attacking Brodie's many faults, he remains the center of the story. And he's more charismatic, too; it's a sweet coincidence that after the lame TV-show-takeover stunt that caps the movie Brodie is approached by some producers for future work. Reel life, meet real life: I look forward to hearing Lee's snarl again.

Mostly, what Mallrats does is provide Smith (often via Brodie) a forum to shovel insults on modern life in general. Sometimes this works, because Brodie (more so than pal T.S., played by too-nice-guy Jeremy London) has a real love/hate thing for the mall. He goes there so often it's his own historic preservation spot; taking everything personally, he exults in the bitchin' new cookies from the cookie stand, and is stunned when a familiar spot is altered or replaced. He's in sync with what the movie wants to do.

But the mall itself doesn't become a character; it's just a shabby backdrop. Otherwise there are some new Star Wars jokes, some overdone musings on the sex lives of comic book figures, and a lame running gag about a guy who can't "see" a 3-D Magic Eye picture. Comicsmeister Stan Lee makes a personal appearance that manages to be interesting and distracting at the same time. But Smith's problem is that much of what he has the movie doing could be done as a ranting essay or a stand-up spiel. Even as the latter he could use some coaching: For the first half, anyway, the characters deliver the jokes with the same "yattadata yattadata yattadata bing!" rhythm, which spoils their punch.

Clerks had much the same rhythms, but its atmosphere was so cruddy that a listener had to focus on dialogue or get nothing at all. Here, the color stock is a tiny promise of something--sets, makeup, detail, reality--that never pays off. The plot, such as it is, involves T.S. and Brodie trying to regain their girlfriends, and--surprise!--they do. So, even though Brodie nearly out-does the "snowball" joke of Clerks with a stunt involving his hand and the crack in his butt, the cheapness here seems dangerously close to Porky's et al., an earlier generation of cheap grossout comedy that held out sentimentality like a plastic carrot supposed to redeem everyone in the end.

Which explains my speculation about Steve Guttenberg's absence. If you're going to be tacky--if Shannen Doherty, for chrissake, has agreed to be in your movie (and she told Dave Letterman last week the movie has "absolutely no message")--then where are the obstacles to a complete Excellence via Sucking? Why back down in the face of true stupidity?

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