Let’s take a magical journey back to 1994. Kevin Smith was feeling pretty good. His no budget (okay, his budget was everything he owned) film Clerks had found a niche and was received well by both critics and the public alike. A character driven story with whip smart dialogue, Clerks was the perfect indie film for a generation stuck in perpetual brooding after the rise of grunge.
The studios took notice. Following a screening of the film, Dazed and Confused producer Jim Jacks approached Smith and his co-producer Scott Mosier about taking their next project to Universal Studios. A deal was made and soon Mallrats began to take form.
Released on October 20th, 1995, Mallrats didn’t exactly have a long gestation period. Like some of the great Beatles albums, this may have helped it in the end. Mallrats used a paint-by-numbers comedy structure, and injected a small portion of period geek humor as the Smith signature on the otherwise contrived comedy action. Smith also utilized what would become his real signature, long dialogue driven scenes, which stuck out from the typical comedy structure of the film.
After a sizable marketing campaign and a supportive studio, Mallrats bombed on release. Opening on a mere 852 screens, the film was unable to break $2 million at the box office and came in 13th on its opening weekend. Buried by critics and unable to draw crowds to theaters, it was a short time before Mallrats became a video store regular…a movie that was always available, because the new stuff was already rented. Remember those days?
Kevin Smith himself quickly moved on from the film. 15 months later, Chasing Amy debuted at Sundance and reestablished Smith as an indie darling. From there, he would continue his career with a solid lineup of films and a devoted fanbase to support him.
But then something else happened. Through the video store, and its “edited for television” airings, Mallrats built a serious fanbase. Smith himself acknowledges that many of his fans now started with the film and it holds as important of a role as any of his others. Ultimately, it was for some of the reasons it failed initially that it now thrives as a cult classic.
Let’s get one thing straight, Brodie Bruce (Jason Lee) is NOT the main character of Mallrats as written. T.S. Quint (Jeremy London) holds that distinction. Brodie’s plotline is a parallel to the “normal” romantic arc of T.S. And Brandi. The game show is the beginning and the end of the film’s story, and their subsequent reconciliation is the focus of the film. Brodie is the bridge from the normal world to the world of the freaks, the “mallrats.” The characters who are most recognized and referred to (Brodie, Jay, Bob, Trish, and Willam) are, in most respects, tools to move T.S. through his journey to Brandi.
Ultimately, it is the collusion of T.S. and his mallrat cohorts that brings about his victory. The wacky weirdos are as much plot devices as they are characters, surrounding the vanilla T.S. but never fully taking over the film.
Along with some questionable performances (Jeremy London admits on the 10th anniversary edition of the DVD that he was stoned for much of the production) and an inspired but inexperienced director, this seems to be a major culprit in the films initial failure. The main character didn’t quite have it, and the more interesting, nerdy supporting characters weren’t all that accessible to the audience at large.
Once again, let us to return to the wonderful world of the mid-nineties….
After the speculator bubble of the late ’80s and early ’90s burst, oversaturation forced comic books to return to an extremely small market, one so small that Marvel Comics would file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in late 1996. Comic shops were closing left and right, and the devoted fan base began a struggle to sustain itself. This led to a renaissance in creator owned characters, whose creators would eventually shift back to the bigger publishers at the turn of the millennium. Smith himself would even be involved in that, but that would be years after Mallrats‘ release.
In short, when Mallrats hit screens, the general public didn’t know or care about comics. They weren’t the basis of constant blockbuster films and television shows. Furthermore, without the widespread use of the internet, it took legitimate effort to learn anything about any “cult” interest. Most people simply didn’t have any inclination to do so.
In other words, the general audience wasn’t open to the one thing that made Mallrats special: its nerdiness. Freely referring to comics and comic creators as if they were common knowledge simply didn’t work on a large scale. Brodie encapsulates this in a scene, having to explain Wolverine’s berserker rage to T.S., who happens to be the character closest to the general audience. T.S. proved that the audience was not expected to know what Brodie was talking about.
Throw in the flaws perhaps caused by the largely inexperienced cast and crew, and the public simply wasn’t interested. But this is where the film’s second life began.
The lovable, drug dealing ne’er do wells. The layabout. The promiscuous teenager. The arrogant, but ultimately insecure comic book fan. Not quite the people that most admit to associating with. Those who did saw something else in Mallrats; themselves.
The Mallrats fanbase connected not with T.S., but with Brodie…because they were Brodie. Not the pale, retiring, sterotypical comic book nerd, but a vibrant guy who had to live with the fact that he had interests that nearly no one could relate to. For the fan, comics and the like are an escape from the hardships and failures of the real world. Brodie has the same desires and needs for affection as others, but his lack of success and ability to truly connect with most people hindered him his entire life. His camaraderie with the other mallrats, the other freaks, rings true.
Throughout the film, Brodie uses his interests to distract himself from Rene (Shannen Doherty), even when they are still together. The mall (and the “dirt mall” to a lesser extent) itself represents this escape, a place where he can be a player in a world that doesn’t care about what he does. Yes, all of the action in Mallrats is pretty ridiculous, but Smith’s dialogue brings legitimate heart to the ‘rats and it ends up saving the film on a few levels. The freaks and geeks watching the film adopted Brodie as their lead, and this changes the film’s endgame in several ways.
First, Brodie entertains the audience by having the types of conversations they had themselves and, perhaps more importantly, had not yet seen in media. Brodie, ever passionate and defensive of his chosen arts, wanders around a public forum as if it is his own. This plants an idea. While the audience only sees moments of interaction between Brodie and the other mallrats, his relationship with each of them is exhibited through dialogue.
Yes, Mallrats takes place on a day like no other, but the audience is given an idea of what the other days have been like. T.S. is simply not part of that world, and though arguably has the same amount of citable backstory as Brodie, ultimately lacks depth. By tapping into an archetype, Smith created a fuller character.
The film, when watched by a certain audience, goes from a silly account of a man’s engagement plans being ruined to the emotional journey of a realistic middle class nerd. Yes, the circumstances of the gags are still ridiculous, but unlike T.S.’s arc, Brodie’s possesses a moral. In T.S.’s story, he loses Brandi for basically no reason. He is blamed for a death he is not responsible for, and that no one could really believe he caused. This concept was obviously intended to be the crux of his arc, but was so silly that it falls flat. In the end, the mallrats save T.S. and being that he didn’t do anything wrong, he learns no lesson.
Brodie, on the other hand, is deeply flawed. He has let a stubborn insistence that his interests (comics, video games) are so defining of him that he can’t be bothered to put himself in discomfort for others, in this case, Rene. Though Rene and Brodie are a perfect intellectual match, Brodie cannot have her until he is willing to focus on her needs.
Brodie’s sage comes in the form of Stan Lee. The real Lee is not present in the film…in fact, the original script featured a fictional comic book guru. Mallrats producer Jim Jacks, having been friendly with “The Man”, was able to contact Lee and have the script adjusted accordingly. (Lee’s Mallrats cameo later became a meta in-joke in his cameo in 2019’s Captain Marvel movie.)
Even with his silly, feigned comic book history references, the character “Stan Lee” is able to plant a thought in Brodie’s mind. This being that even the man who is the “master” of comics is as obsessed with love as anything else. A very basic idea, but this ultimately leads to Brodie’s climax. Brodie has always possessed the ability to make Rene happy, as they are more similar than different. What Brodie needed to do was admit that something outside of himself was worth the effort. Once he applies that effort in the closing scenes, he not only regains Rene, but is handed security in the form of a television gig. It isn’t realistic, but at least the message is there.
In 1995, this didn’t work. The audience wasn’t in the theater, and wouldn’t be there for quite awhile. How would Mallrats fare in today’s more nerd-friendly marketplace? I don’t think it would be much different. With as many as a half-dozen superhero movies being released a year the audience would recognize Stan Lee and Wolverine with no prompting. Maybe the open forum of the internet would help the jokes fly a little better. None of this changes the fact that the most functional narrative in the film follows a character who most people probably can’t relate to.
Yes, conventions are now giant events and Avengers: Endgame is one of the biggest movies in history and there was a cosplay TV show, but these things didn’t change everyone into a “geek.” The Big Bang Theory was one of the biggest shows on TV, but it plays off the ridiculous notion that the “geeks” are difficult to relate to and live in their own world. When Brodie supplants T.S. as the main character, Mallrats becomes a cautionary tale, perhaps one that is more relevant now than ever.
In a world where it is increasingly easy and (horrifyingly) acceptable to define yourself by one interest and to only seek out those who share them, our once small community has become so interconnected that it appears (and only appears) that nerds actually run the world. The loneliness that Brodie is doomed to feel is much easier to deny, but is as present as ever.
Because of this, the moral of Mallrats is ever more important: Don’t let your self interest define you. Don’t let your love for one thing keep you from other experiences. Don’t use your passion as a defense against the world, use it as a way to make your mark in it. That’s what you can take away from Mallrats, and that is why it has survived when it seemed doomed.