Sworn Destiny

If he never lifts a finger again in his life, Jason Lee has already claimed his spot in the celluloid hall of fame. He's the prime mouthpiece for the obscenity-larded wit of indie auteur Kevin Smith and, via the Smith movies Mallrats and Chasing Amy, has taken responsibility for articulating a significant proportion of the decade's most hilariously foul mouth dialogue.

Lee's special gift is an ability to make Smith's abuse heavy slackerisms ("you fuckers think just because a guy reads comics he can't start some shit?") sound like they're lines from a Preston Sturges movie. Lee has some claim to being the Cary Grant of the dick joke, and Smith has gone on record as saying "The man's too brilliant for words"; so it's one of film-making's more arcane mysteries as to why Lee is still grubbing around in the Underrated Hotshot compartment, while fellow Chasing Amy star Ben Affleck has seen his million dollar cheekbones launched into the Hollywood stratosphere.

Many actors cultivate a laid-back, zoned-out camera manner; Lee, however, possesses the kind of free and easy casualness that proclaims him a natural. It's the truth, too: Lee walked into Mallrats cast virtually untried as an actor (his only previous movie experience was as a bit-part player in Allison Anders' Latino girl gang yarn My Crazy Life). Lee possesses the perfect slacker resume, though: he was a fixture on the West Coast skateboarding scene in the late eighties and early nineties, contributing to skate art by perfecting the 360 degrees flip; he subsequently started his own skate-gear company, Stereo, and was immortalised through a signature Airwalk skate shoe. Consequently Lee strutted his stuff for the cameras in the plethora of skate videos that, bizarrely, sell by the bucketload across the US; best known among these is Video Days, directed by music-promo maestro Spike Jonze, in which Lee can be spotted riding kerbs and handrails wise ease.

Lee won the role of smart-arse deadbeat Brodie Bruce in Mallrats, and announced his presence in the lead of major motion picture by yelling, "Sweet fucking christ, would you knock it off!" at Shannon Doherty (he's naturally, asleep; she tries to wake him up by rapping his skull with her knuckles). With these words, Lee instantly installed himself as a fixture in the Kevin Smith ensemble, proving himself a master of the perfectly turned obscenity.

Smith entrusted Lee with a major role in his next movie, Chasing Amy, thus conferring on him the signal honour of being the only actor to have fulfilled Smith's central requirements - to be able to swear viciously and conduct a detailed debate about movie and comic book trivia at the same time.

Lee slots in smoothly into the Smith set-up. All three films in Smith's New Jersey trilogy revolve around the same basic relationship: two guys - one a straight dorky type mired in girl trouble; the other a savage hedonist fixated on porn and video games - conducting a love-hate relationship so fractious it hovers on the latently homosexual. Dante in Clerks, TS in Mallrats and Holden in Chasing Amy are the straight halves, for which a never-quite-satisfied Smith cast a different actor each time. Jeff Anderson inhabited the person of Clerks' foul mouthed dark half Randal ("Have you ever wondered how much the average jizz-mopper makes per hour?"), but failed to reappear for Mallrats. Lee was installed in his place, and no one has yet muscled past him.

The studio-produced Mallrats - intended as Smith's step-up from the micro-budget Clerks - tanked disastrously, and is now a byword for the second-movie jinx. It may have flummoxed its intended audience with its expletive-peppered teen comedy, but fortunately it's garnered sufficient obsessive loyalty to nudge it closer to overlooked-masterpiece status (Smith is currently preparing a special edition cut for DVD release).

Meanwhile, Lee's wisecracking remains the real reason to watch Mallrats, easily outclassing his mealy-mouthed co-star, Party Of Five's Jeremy London. From wondering whether girlfriend Rene (Doherty) dumped him for farting in her face during an, uh, intimate act ("What can I say? I was feeling very relaxed. When I'm relaxed, I squirt") to debating the chances of Lois Lane bearing Superman's baby ("Do you think her fallopian tubes could handle his sperm? I guarantee he blows a load like a shotgun, right through her back"), Lee gets himself outside some of the most intricately funny dialogue of the decade. Mallrats, tragically, may already have been deposited into the dumpster of cinematic also-rans; time, surely, will be kind. This is the movie, remember, that brought us the Brodie Bruce "stink palm": a particularly revolting manoeuvre that had him sticking a hand down his trousers, digging deep, and then pressing flesh with his enemies. "How does he explain it to his colleagues and family?" Brodie says. "They'll think he doesn't know how to wipe properly."

Mallrats also marked the moment that Lee first crossed paths with Ben Affleck. Affleck took a minor role as a clothes-emporium salesman (the shop's called Fashionable Male) who hits on Shannen Doherty before outlining his seduction principles to Brodie, her one-time boyfriend. "I like to pick up girls on the rebound from a disappointing relationship," says Affleck. "They're much more in need of solace, and I use that to fuck them some place very uncomfortable." To which Lee responds with the finest comeback of the movie (and - quite possibly - of all time): "What, like the back of a Volkswagen?"

Lee demonstrates the same wholeheartedly repulsive instincts as Chasing Amy's comic-book colourist Banky Edwards, opposite whom Affleck was promoted to lead-guy status. Banky is locked into a permanent crisis of bile-fuelled confrontation; whether it's with a comic fan who calls him a "tracer" ("I'll trace a chalk line around your dead fucking body, you fuck!"), or attempting to undermine Affleck's Holden McNeil's yen for cute lesbian Joey Lauren Adams ("I'm telling you, that bitch could be a bigger fucking germ farm than that monkey in Outbreak"). Even though he's wearing a genuinely repellent beard, Lee once again steals the show from everyone in sight.

Quite why it's taking so long for Lee to kick his career into high gear is still something of a puzzle. Hollywood has shown it's readiness to embrace him (he has a role in a dopey romantic comedy, Kissing A Fool - a kind of trial by David Schwimmer). He's also signed on to the next Jerry Bruckheimer production Enemy Of The State (directed by Tony Scott), following in the footsteps of Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames and Affleck himself in parlaying indie-flick credibility into major-league paychecks. His affiliation to the church of big-timers, Scientology, won't hurt his chances, either. The real reason, you have to suspect, is that, like the goof-off good-timers he portrays on screen, Lee just does what the hell he feels like. Everyone should have that problem.

(taken from Guardian Guide Sept 5-11 1998)