Statistics tell us that there are 0.2 malls for every 1,000 people in the United States; that’s equivalent to the per-capita numbers for restaurants, which must mean that shopping has become as vital as eating to Americans.
They’re also important to American movies — this year alone, we’ve had the surprise hit “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” soon to be followed with a darker twist on somewhat similar material, “Observe and Report,” hitting theaters on April 10.
There are lots of great mall moments in movies — from the automotive rampage of “The Blues Brothers” and a near-death incident in “Clueless” to a would-be food-court conversion in “Saved!” and the poignant finale of “Superbad” — but the 10 films listed below (in no particular order) show us malls as social hubs, purveyors of identities and integral facets of American life. Grab a soft pretzel and an Orange Julius and meet me by the Waldenbooks.
“Fast Times at Ridgemont High”
In Amy Heckerling’s essential and hilarious examination of teenage dreams and heartbreak — based on the book by Cameron Crowe — the mall is the town square, the front stoop, the village green where everyone scopes each other out, flirts, fights and begins the chase anew. It’s one of the most honest movies about adolescence ever made, but no less funny for being so. Perhaps more poignant than the travails of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character is the fact that the Sherman Oaks Galleria, where “Fast Times” was filmed, now looks nothing like the archetypal mall captured in the movie. (Get ready for this to become a recurring motif in this list, since thriving malls — like many of their patrons — endure constant face-lifts as the years go by.)
“Valley Girl”Another great screen moment for the Reagan-era Sherman Oaks Galleria was this popular love story about totally awesome Val Gal Julie (Deborah Foreman) who horrifies her friends by ditching her boyfriend and taking up with Hollywood punk Randy (Nicolas Cage). The mall is presented not just as the focal point for the Valley kids’ social life but also as a symbol of the shallow, materialistic life that Julie is presumably leaving behind for a relationship with the relatively gritty Randy. For what could have been a flat movie based on a hit song — see “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” — the intelligent and adorable “Valley Girl” marked a breakthrough for talented filmmaker Martha Coolidge.
“Chopping Mall”Also filmed at the Sherman Oaks Galleria, this horror epic pits horny teens against deadly security robots when four couples decide to stay after hours at the mall to party all night long. (It’s sort of a cross between “Friday the 13th” and “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.”) One of the young actresses is Kelli Maroney, who co-starred in “Night of the Comet,” a post-apocalyptic teen fantasy that had some memorable mall moments of its own.
“Bad Santa”Another movie where a mall becomes the backdrop for criminal doings is Terry Zwigoff’s hilariously anti-Christmas Christmas movie, where angry drunk Willie (Billy Bob Thornton, never better) takes annual gigs as a mall Santa so that he and his little-person sidekick (Tony Cox, who spends most of the film in an elf outfit) can case the place and rob it on Dec. 24. Given the film’s hilariously glaring political incorrectness, one suspects that the Del Amo Fashion Center in Torrance, Calif., might not trumpet the fact that the film was shot there. But now you know.
Kevin Smith’s much-anticipated follow-up to “Clerks” died a quick death at the box office but has gone onto become a cult favorite among his fans. Jason Lee and Jeremy London play two slackers who spend the day at the mall trying to get their girlfriends back, ducking security guards and obnoxious retailers who resent the pair’s lack of a “shopping agenda.” Even though, like most of Smith’s early work, the film is set in New Jersey, he shot “Mallrats” at Minnesota’s Eden Prairie Center, a once-thriving shopping center that lost most of its business to the gargantuan Mall of America. The film parses the essential DNA of malls, down to differentiating the food court from free-floating “autonomous unit(s) for mid-mall snacking.”
“Scenes from a Mall”This Paul Mazursky comedy — featuring Woody Allen and Bette Midler as a couple whose longtime marriage implodes amid admissions of infidelity at the mall — gets a bad rap, but I’ve always been a fan. For one thing, Mazursky’s an underrated American filmmaker, and it’s fun to see Allen making a rare appearance in someone else’s movie. (It also helps that I saw it on the day of one of my own big breakups, so I could relate.) There’s some very funny stuff here, including one of the most unlikely lovemaking locations ever filmed — a multiplex theater that’s showing “Salaam Bombay!” “Scenes” is set in L.A., but to accommodate the West Coast-phobic Allen, most of the interiors were shot at the Stamford Town Center in Stamford, Conn.
“Dawn of the Dead”Both the 1978 (filmed at Monroeville Mall, Monroeville, Pa.) and 2004 (the no-longer-standing Thornhill Square Mall, Thornhill, Ontario) versions make use of malls to equate unthinking consumerism with being a zombie. (“This was an important place in their lives,” observes a character in the original, theorizing as to why the undead would congregate at a shopping center.) Both films also take full advantage of a mall as the modern equivalent to a cavalry outpost — they’re secure, loaded with supplies, and one could comfortably stay inside for months. Think about it: Would you rather hole up in a fallout shelter or in a Mrs. Field’s Cookies?
“Logan’s Run”While not a mall per se, this vision of the future in a domed city (the actual location was the Dallas Market Center) feels like living in a mall, where people always have access to shopping, sex and plastic surgery. There’s one little catch, however — once you turn 30, you have to participate in the ritual of Carousel, which is sold to the masses as a way of reincarnation but is really just a method for curbing the excess population.
“True Stories”In the way that Robert Altman used the city of Nashville as a prism by which to examine the American experience post-Watergate, David Byrne traveled to Texas to use the Lone Star State as a microcosm for what was happening in all 50. One of the film’s bravura segments — introduced with a title card that reads “Shopping is a Feeling” — takes Byrne’s narrator character through the shopping mall in the fictional town of Virgil, Texas (actually Dallas’s since-remodeled NorthPark Mall), for an unforgettable fashion show and the intermingling of all the townspeople. “People here are inventing their own system of beliefs. They’re creating it, doing it, selling it, making it up as they go along,” notes a deadpan Byrne. “Driving. Not only driving — but parking.”
“Dr. T and the Women”Altman’s Dallas is as dead-on its own way as Byrne’s in this 2000 dramedy starring Richard Gere as a Big D gynecologist who’s helpless when it comes to dealing with the women in his life. The film’s bravura opening sequence features Farrah Fawcett having a mental breakdown in the NorthPark Mall fountain, but the entire scene plays like an amped-up version of the famous supermarket ballet at the end of “The Stepford Wives.” For many of the women in Altman’s film, shopping isn’t just a feeling — it’s their only way of feeling. No wonder Gere’s Dr. T has to get the hell out of the United States to make any sense of his life; he’s got to escape all the damn malls.