Writer/director Kevin Smith burst onto the indie scene in 1994 with 'Clerks,' an irreverent ode to his years of over-the-counter service at a local convenience store. Since then, he's continued to draw upon his own life to create a mini-universe of New Jersey angst spread across seven films. His career has proven to be a critical rollercoaster that speeds between immense praise ('Chasing Amy') and outright scorn ('Jersey Girl'). But none of his films have split audiences and critics more harshly than his 1995 sophomore effort, 'Mallrats.'
When an uptight romantic named T.S. (Jeremy London) is dumped by his girlfriend Brandi (Claire Forlani), his best friend Brodie (Jason Lee) decides to cheer him up with a day at the local mega-mall. But Brodie's attempts to ease his friend's pain are soon thwarted by a group of mall-dwellers, including Brodie's ex-girlfriend Rene (Shannen Doherty), an angry sales clerk (Ben Affleck), the stoned dynamic duo Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith himself), an underage sex-documentarian (Renee Humphrey), and one of T.S.'s ex-flames (Joey Lauren Adams). Over the course of the day, the boys will each declare their love for Brandi and Rene, win a battle of wits with Brandi's father (Michael Rooker), and avoid being kicked out of Brodie's favorite mall.
To be honest, 'Mallrats' on its own isn't likely to win Kevin Smith any new fans. In fact, Smith himself seems to have had a hard time deciding what he thinks of the film -- when it was first released to a backlash from fans, he apologized and blamed the film's failures on studio interference. But over time, as the film gained a stronger cult following on DVD, he has referred to his initial apology as a joke.
Personally, I'm a huge fan of Smith's films and I think 'Mallrats' has a lot to offer. Though his rapid-fire dialogue occasionally feels like it's being recited rather than delivered, more often than not it's gut-bustlingly funny and incredibly clever. Smith has a brilliant insight into what makes young minds tick and each character adds another layer of amusement to the mix. The performances are generally on target as well. Jason Lee's Brodie is a posturing powder keg of fury and his scenes steal the movie at every turn. His scene with a mugging Stan Lee is wonderful -- hilarious, sweet, and revealing all at the same moment.
The film also has a surprisingly strong undercurrent of hope and romanticism bubbling under the surface. Smith's ability to portray authentic friendships and relationships is perhaps unparalleled, and at its heart, 'Mallrats' is about good friends and the lengths to which they'll go to help each other out.
Having said all that, objectively 'Mallrats' is not without its faults. It does sometimes falter when it focuses on juvenile humor and visual gags, and it also feels dated, both by the mid '90s pop culture references, and by the occasionally stilted performances by his then-less experienced cast (London is particularly painful to watch and a few cameos from Smith alumni don't go as well as planned).
In the end, your opinion of 'Mallrats' is likely to parallel your opinion of the director's work in general. If you love everything that drips from Smith's pen onto his lens, you'll be in heaven when you have the chance to catch up with 'Mallrats' again. If you think Smith's films are trite and repetitive, you'll absolutely hate this flick and I'd advise you avoid it at all cost.
For my own part, as a Kevin Smith fan, I think 'Mallrats' is worth every penny. Granted, it's not my favorite of his films (that honor bobbles between 'Chasing Amy' and 'Clerks II'), but it's a fun flick that I've watched and laughed at countless times over the years.
Presented in 1080p using the VC-1 codec, 'Mallrats' clearly hasn't been remastered for its release to high definition, although this HD DVD edition is certainly a nice step up from the previously released Anniversary Edition DVD.
Colors are vivid, skintones are natural, and black levels are deep. The palette is purposefully washed out at times, but there are instances of strong primaries that drench the screen in mood and life (just watch the last fifteen minutes of the film). Source noise and artifacting have been eliminated from previous releases -- the only remaining noise is a moderate veneer of grain that showcases the film's lower budget roots.
I did had some issues that are relatively minor on their own, but cumulatively knock this transfer down a couple of notches. My biggest problem was the softness of fine details, which is most obvious when looking at background elements like book covers and street signs -- there's a slight murkiness present over the entire transfer, which lacks the pop and vitality of other films released to high-def. I also caught several glaring examples of edge enhancement, random print scratches, surfaces that lack convincing texture, and average shadow delineation. All of the visual problems are most obvious in the early stages of the film and improve slightly when T.S. and Brodie reach the mall, but the transfer never achieves greatness.
The 'Mallrats' HD DVD features a solid Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround mix (1.5 Mbps) that's compares quite favorably to the standard DVD. The film's music soundtrack receives the most noticeable improvement -- lead guitars are more stable, drums are more earthy, and the bass guitars pulse with bravado. When Weezer crescendos into the rock-ballad "Suzanne" at the end of the film, it sounds as full and spirited as it should. The sound effects also receive a bump and are less stagey at a higher bitrate. Just compare the Jay and Silent Bob sabotage scenes on the HD DVD to the Anniversary Edition DVD -- the difference is obvious. Kevin Smith films are always packed with dialogue and this Digital-Plus track renders each word crisply in a well prioritized soundscape. There are a few moments when the actors' post-dubbing is obvious, but of course that's an issue with the original sound editing and not the technical mix.
Sadly, the soundfield is still shallow and front heavy -- other than the robust rock songs, there are only a few instances where the rear speakers make their presence known. As mentioned above, dialogue is certainly crisp, but it sounds hollow and is devoid of resonance. For the most part, the entire track pulls the soundscape forward and leaves it squarely on the same plain as the image. The remaining issues I found are relatively minor -- channel movement is a bit stilted, accuracy is sometimes questionable, and the ambient atmosphere is somewhat sparse. To be sure, this audio track does an acceptable job -- it just doesn't have a lot to do.
Kevin Smith fans will be pleased to see this HD DVD version of 'Mallrats' carry over all of the extras originally included on supplement-packed 10th Anniversary Edition DVD released in 2005. Each of the video features are presented in 480i/p, and (surprisingly) the contrast levels of the standard definition supplements appear more vibrant and normalized than the transfer of the feature presentation.
First up is an audio commentary featuring Kevin Smith, Ben Affleck, Jason Lee, Jason Mewes, producer Scott Mosier, and production assistant Vincent Pereira. This track is great for laughs and Affleck's merciless ribbing of Smith is worth every second you spend listening. The two hurl insult after insult at each other, gradually increasing their friendly rivalry as the rest of the room disintegrates into laughter. But the best parts of the track are the fantastic anecdotes shared by nearly every participant. Make no mistake, this is a boys-night-out commentary that loses focus on the film and follows hundreds of random tangents, but it's a guaranteed good time and Smith fans shouldn't hesitate to give it a try.
"Mallrats: The Reunion" (49 minutes) is just as entertaining. Reminiscent of 'An Evening with Kevin Smith' and its sequel, an audience tosses questions out at Smith and the entire cast and waits for hilarity to ensue. As always, Smith is brilliant at handling a live crowd and you'll find yourself in stitches as he relishes and abuses the audience at the same time. The only downside is that there are few more frivolous questions that fall flat and waste time, but Smith and the cast do a great job of recovering from mediocrity and generally putting on a great show.
Next up are three featurettes that examine the initial failure and eventual cult following of 'Mallrats.' "A Brief Q&A with Kevin Smith" (9 minutes) includes more of the director's cynical thoughts on the film, "The Erection of an Epic" (22 minutes) is packed with brutal cast and crew interviews, and "View Askew's Look Back At Mallrats" (21 minutes) features Smith, Affleck, Lee, and Mewes candidly discussing the film's performance in theaters and on DVD. All three of these featurettes are unusually blunt and honest, and are really refreshing compared to the self-promotional tone of most special features released today.
But even 'Mallrats' can't escape the inevitable studio promo. "Cast Interviews from the Original Set" (9 minutes) is a studio puff-piece that feels like it belongs on an entirely different disc. The actors appear in interviews discussing their characters, the story's throwback roots to classic R-rated teen cinema like 'Porkys,' and Smith's directorial prowess. Skip this one.
Rounding out the extras are a mildly amusing collection of "Outtakes" (8 minutes), a lengthy group of droll "Deleted Scenes" from the original cut of the film, a Kevin Smith-directed music video for "Build Me Up Buttercup" as covered by The Goops (4 minutes), and the film's "Theatrical Trailer."
All in all, this is a solid series of features that could take a full weekend to dig through and enjoy.
Kevin Smith is irreverent, witty, and a master of comedic dialogue. 'Mallrats' may not have the polish of his later work, but it still offers a lot of laughs for fans and newcomers alike. The video transfer and audio mix on this HD DVD edition are both slightly above average, but fail to live up to more well-rounded catalogue presentations. The packed-to-the-gills supplements package, on the other hand, doesn't disappoint.