Brodie (Jason Lee) and T.S. (Jeremy London), the befuddled and talkative guys in Mallrats, hang out and debate whether Lois Lane could survive impregnation by Superman. (They conclude that only Wonder Woman would have a uterus sturdy enough to carry a Superbaby to term.) They don’t limit themselves to this topic, but all their conversation belongs to the same genre of meaningless but very funny talk. In short, Brodie and T.S. are almost clones of Dante and Randal, the heroes of writer-director Kevin Smith’s previous film, Clerks. Is this all Kevin Smith can do — two unambitious guys sending up verbal balloons? I prefer to think that Smith, who has a sharp ear for dialogue, has other shots in his cannon, and that Mallrats is to Clerks what Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado was to his El Mariachi: a name-star, bigger-budget version of the fledgling auteur’s no-frills calling card. Yet the charm of Clerks and El Mariachi was their smallness and low-budgetness. Painting them on a larger canvas doesn’t do much for them.

That said, I enjoyed much of Mallrats. Smith has assembled a decent cast, though the best I can say for Shannen Doherty, as Brodie’s bored girlfriend, is that she proves she’s a good sport. And Michael Rooker, who just a few years ago seemed to be getting dignified roles, appears as the ranting chrome-dome dad of T.S.’s girlfriend (the appealing Claire Forlani) and is required to put his foot through a floor, lick chocolate off his fingers in merciless close-up, and spend half his screen time puking; he must really be a good sport. Joey Lauren Adams has a pleasant, unself-conscious, bubbly sexiness. And comics fans will get a kick out of Stan Lee’s cameo as himself, dispensing “Face front, true believer” wisdom.

Almost everyone has lively things to say, the topics usually centering on the Kevin Smith triumvirate of sex, comics, and movies. The show-stealers, as in Clerks, are the slacker-Mutt-and-Jeff team Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith himself). Mewes seems to tune in to an oddball galaxy far, far away (he’d have been perfect in Dazed and Confused); at times, he’s like a foul-mouthed version of the wacko Disney characters capering around the margins of The Lion King or Pocahontas. Smith doesn’t act much — his character isn’t called Silent Bob for nothing — but he knows how to use his big, beefy body, and his sober deadpan links him with Buster Keaton. What doesn’t link Smith the director with Keaton is his rather uninspired handling of slapstick. Silent Bob goes crashing through ladies’ changing rooms or beats up the Easter bunny, and you appreciate the idea of it, but you’re acutely aware that you’re not laughing. Smith is best with verbal slapstick, not visual.

Smith’s movies are something like the easygoing, pleasantly unambitious slackers he puts on the screen. Maybe I shouldn’t criticize Smith for returning to the same ground in the $7 million Mallrats that he covered in the $27,000 Clerks; after all, Quentin Tarantino’s sophomore effort was Pulp Fiction, not much of a genre jump from Reservoir Dogs. Yet I watched Mallrats feeling that Smith had already handed in a brilliant first draft with Clerks, and that Mallrats, though printed on better paper and free of typos, is an unnecessary second draft. Kevin Smith is a viciously witty and refreshingly rude writer, and not a bad rough-edged comedy director. But how much further can he go with these scrappy talking-heads movies? (Mallrats provides a blunt answer: no further than the mall.) The true test of comedy directors, be they Billy Wilder or John Waters, is how deftly they can adapt their gifts to a variety of stories. Smith needs to move on now — he needs to shit or get off the pot.

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