How to use a mall
As The A.V. Club’s Mall Week draws to a close, we stopped to look back on all the uses that pop culture has for malls as symbols of consumerism run amok, a staging ground for big fight sequences, and an illustration of what was popular and ubiquitous in the era before everything was available online. But films go further in finding ways to make use of a mall: As a free love nest for oversexed twentysomethings in Chopping Mall, for instance, or a place to pick up older men and get heartfelt, off-base advice about girls in Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Here are just a few more of the ways movies tell us malls can come in handy. (Warning: spoilers aplenty ahead.)
Dawn Of The Dead (1979)
Plot: A group of people running from the growing horde of walking dead hole up in a shopping mall, where they find everything they need for long-term survival: food, water, guns, electricity, shelter, horrible Muzak, etc. Over time, though, they start feeling trapped and need to escape their consumer paradise and find someplace more fulfilling to live.
Uses for a mall: As an endless fount of bounty: the characters call it “fat city” and “Christmas” when they first see all the intact stores full of shining, carefully displayed items. With the entrances blocked, it also becomes a passable fortress to keep out the undead, and a playground where the characters can roam, explore, and play out their fantasies of avarice.
Practical, universal lessons: Physical possessions are not freedom. Eventually, just owning things gets boring, and it becomes necessary to look elsewhere for fulfillment.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: The best time to stop and check your blood pressure on a testing machine is not while fleeing a horde of zombies. C’mon, you know it’s just going to be unnaturally elevated anyway. Also, hapless zombies being carried around by escalators are pretty funny.
Observe And Report (2009)
Plot: The head of security at a local mall (Seth Rogen) leads an increasingly deranged hunt for a serial flasher who has scarred the love of his life, the girl at the makeup counter. As the search continues, Rogen goes off his meds, the local police get involved, and it becomes clear just how unbalanced he is.
Uses for a mall: As a reflection of the drudgery and misery of dead-end jobs in the suburbs. Rogen’s deputies are well-meaning dopes; a shy girl falls for him while being bullied at her job at the food court by her small-minded boss (Patton Oswalt). Also as a largely untended playground where a nut like Rogen, given the least bit of power, can see himself as a king.
Practical, universal lessons: Mall cops should undergo psychological screening, too. You can’t blame every crime on one guy just cause he’s from Iraq.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Even if you have an epic brawl with a horde of police officers in the middle of the mall, and later grossly overreact to a flasher, you can get your job back and be hailed as a hero. Unless the whole climax is some twisted fantasy/homage to Taxi Driver.
Plot: Best friends Jeremy London and Jason Lee get into fights with their respective girlfriends, break up, and try to find solace by spending the entire day hanging out at a mall. They decide to wreak havoc on mall security and a slimeball store clerk while winning their girls back by crashing a dating game show filming in the mall.
Uses for a mall: Just about everything, since the vast majority of the film takes place in and around the mall over the course of the day. The overflow of marketing and materialism is so overwhelming that the only scene that takes place away from the mall once the guys arrive is at a flea market. The mall has food, girls, and space to walk around discussing superhero sex organs ad nauseam.
Practical, universal lessons: Overreacting to a slight change of plans by instigating a fight does not make for a healthy relationship. Also, the cookie stand does not count as part of the food court. Oh, and don’t have sex with underage girls, you filthy pervert.
Narrow, film specific lessons: Before Stan Lee became a caricature of Alfred Hitchcock-cameo continuity, he offered stock sage romantic advice ripped from his comics. A trip to Universal Studios in Florida and the filming of a dating-show pilot are both terrible locations for a marriage proposal.
Minority Report (2002)
Plot: In a future where precognitives predict murders before they occur and special agents bring in the killers-to-be before they’ve committed their crimes, D.C. police chief Tom Cruise gets a “red-ball” prediction saying he’s going to be the next murderer. Assuming that he’s been set up, he goes on the run, trying to evade his own high-tech police force, clear his name, and get to the bottom of the conspiracy.
Uses for a mall: Definitely not as a good place to ditch pursuers on your own, not in a future where retina-scanners abound and animated advertising calls you out by name wherever you go. However, if you have a precog along for the ride, it’s a great place to shoplift umbrellas, hide behind conveniently placed masses of balloons, and issue cryptic warnings to random strangers. And if you don’t happen to be on the run for your life due to a massive conspiracy, it’s a good place to find advertising that knows exactly what you want and is ready to talk to you about it.
Practical, universal lessons: In any era, it’s convenient to have everything you might want to buy (or in a pinch, steal) located in one place. Crowds are a good place to get lost when necessary.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Personal precognitives make great personal shoppers.
Plot: A shrimpy 12-year-old boy wishes he was big, and wakes up as Tom Hanks, a full-grown man still with the mind of a pre-teen. While trying to find the magical machine that granted his wish, in hopes of becoming a kid again, he gets a data-entry job at a toy company. But when he meets the company’s owner at an FAO Schwarz in the local mall, and the two of them play “Chopsticks” together on a giant foot-piano, he winds up promoted to toy-tester, and he starts building a happy life as an adult, albeit still one with a very kid-oriented bent.
Uses for a mall: As an engine to make dreams come true. It’s one thing to impress your prospective boss with spreadsheets and a great résumé; it’s another thing entirely to play with him in front of an impressed audience, and make him feel like a kid again. You can’t buy that kind of bonding at any kiosk.
Practical, universal lessons: The best way to connect with someone is to find fun things you have in common. Those piano lessons may be a bore, but they might also come in handy someday. There’s nothing wrong with occasionally acting like a kid, no matter how old you are.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Hanging out at toy stores all day might just turn out to have hidden benefits besides the chance to play with expensive stuff without paying for it, and without trying to find room in your own house for an oversized floor-piano.
Plot: High-school best friends Jonah Hill and Michael Cera embark on a mission to buy alcohol and hook up at their first real party before they graduate and attend different colleges. The tension of their looming separation sows seeds of conflict. As their “one crazy night” of misadventures progresses, they cross paths with outlandish cops, violent partygoers, and terrible drivers.
Uses for a mall: As the morning-after recovery center. It’s a good place to find incredibly tight jeans that show off the mythical “male cameltoe,” buy cover-up to hide a black eye, and replace a ruined comforter after a night of heavy drinking.
Practical, universal lessons: Things change whether you want them to or not. Lives diverge, so you better get in as many dick jokes as you can before everyone splits up.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Getting so drunk that you pass out and headbutt your crush in the eye has just as much of a chance of relationship success as being the nice guy and not taking advantage of the dangerously drunk girl, especially if you happen to cross paths at a mall the next day.
Plot: A human baby accidentally winds up at the North Pole and gets raised as an elf until his size starts to hinder the workflow. When he learns the truth of his identity, he sets out for New York City to reunite with his birth father, a grouchy children’s-book publisher on Santa’s Naughty List.
Uses for a mall: As a magical land of American holiday consumerism waiting to be explored. Will Ferrell’s Buddy the Elf meets every new experience in New York with childlike innocence and confusion, making the mall sequences hilarious. His eagerness to prepare a mall store for the arrival of Santa Claus goes so far overboard—custom Lite Brite designs, yards and yards of Christmas lights, intricate paper-snowflake chains—that the manager suspects a corporate plant gunning for his job.
Practical, universal lessons: Elevators are scary and dangerous, no matter how commonplace they are. Sneaking up on someone singing in the shower and joining in on a duet isn’t cute or endearing, it’s creepy. Being the overzealous and sickeningly chipper employee can backfire at your job.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.” Unrelated to malls, do not insult Peter Dinklage; you won’t like him when he’s angry.
Mean Girls (2004)
Plot: While hanging at the mall with her new friends, The Plastics, Cady Heron struggles with the difficult dynamics of American teen social structure, having lived in rural Africa most of her life. Watching her peers around the fountain, though, she begins to figure it out when she comes to the realization that it isn’t all that different from watching animals at a watering hole.
Uses for a mall: As a living lesson in anthropology. The mall is a place to see hierarchies at work, whether it’s rich vs. poor, cool vs. popular, or man vs. woman.
Practical, universal lessons: We’re all the same, really. Plus malls are great places for people-watching.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Malls—and in specific, fancy soap shops—are also great places for scheming against evil clique leaders and running into teachers in their everyday clothes.
Plot: A federal employee and a geologist seek to save Los Angeles from an impending natural disaster. After several attempts to warn citizens go unheeded, the city’s hospitals are soon overwhelmed with those injured by volcano-related incidents. Reporters on the scene note the makeshift tents erected to compensate for the ever-growing numbers of wounded. Seeking damage control and a safer, cleaner medical environment, the city employs The Beverly Center, adjacent to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, as a triage center. The mall’s Hard Rock Café becomes a central focus for treatment and care for the wounded.
Uses for a mall: Given the mall’s large occupancy capacity, it makes for an efficient secondary location when the hospital runs out of rooms and beds. While its ability to offer medical care is limited, there’s shelter, seating, and a feeling of familiarity for those housed within. The restaurant’s balloons and crayons provide a welcome distraction for the children amid the chaos.
Practical, universal lessons: Malls aren’t simply places for consumer fantasies, they’re excellent tactical locations in case of natural disasters.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: The Hard Rock Café is not only a great place to see paraphernalia from popular-music history, it’s a great place to distract children as the world literally burns under their feet. Except, of course, if a nearby skyscraper is detonated in order to create a makeshift dam to divert the flow of lava. Also? Tommy Lee Jones can outrun a falling building.
Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
Plot: Teenage friends (and would-be rock stars) Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves use a time machine to pass a history class to ensure they will fulfill their destiny. Rather than simply observing history, they decide to assemble a group of famous historical figures in order to finish their upcoming report. Leaving the millennium-spanning group in the San Dimas Mall to absorb contemporary culture proves disastrous, as each figure soon clashes with denizens of the mall. Before the big report, everyone winds up in jail, with the rock-star-created future utopia in jeopardy.
Uses for a mall: Malls aren’t just for shopping, they’re more like Wikipedia With A Food Court. Winter and Reeves take their historical heroes to the mall to keep them busy, but each person finds something analogous to their own lives and connects with it.
Practical, universal lessons: A mall isn’t just a place to buy products; it’s a place to purchase ideas. Consumerism masks a deeper desire to fulfill dreams. But the distance between dreams and reality can be huge, even for people who find exactly what they want on the shelves.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Socrates is not smooth with the ladies. Joan of Arc was a great warrior, but might have fared even better had she implemented a rigorous aerobics regime. Just like Bob Dylan, Beethoven was not afraid to go electric.
Plot: Los Angeles-based hit man Jason Statham is kidnapped and injected with a poison that will stop his heart if he doesn’t keep it going with a constant flow of adrenaline. Determined to stay alive long enough to avenge himself, he goes tearing across L.A., starting fights, ingesting massive amounts of drugs, and at one point, having sex with his girlfriend (Amy Smart) in the middle of a crowded outdoor mall in Chinatown. By keeping his heart revving, he manages to stay alive long enough to kill an awful lot of people—and to titillate an entire bus full of tourist schoolgirls.
Uses for a mall: It’s a convenient place for exhibitionists to pick up an instant audience of cheering, enthusiastic voyeurs.
Practical, universal lessons: A moribund relationship might just need a little variety in the sack (or on the street, up against a mailbox) to spice things up. Couples who trust each other with their fantasies and their bodies have more fun together.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: “No” actually means “Oh God, yes, more, faster.” Granted, people who apply this lesson outside the context of this film are likely to get themselves into serious legal and moral trouble.
Back To The Future (1985)
Plot: Michael J. Fox is a sad loser from a family of sad losers until his mad-scientist friend Christopher Lloyd is killed while testing out a time machine at the local mall parking lot, and Fox accidentally winds up stuck in the ’50s, where he encounters his parents and accidentally alters their past, which may prevent him from ever being born. Consequently, he has to repair the timeline by getting his folks back together, then work with the younger Lloyd to generate the power to get Fox back to the future.
Uses for a mall: A staging ground for experiments that fly in the face of God and nature. Also as a useful device for gauging timeline alterations: The shopping center where Fox and Lloyd test the device is called The Twin Pines Mall, until Fox flattens one of those pines with his time-machine Delorean, insuring that in his altered present, it’ll just be the Lone Pine Mall.
Practical, universal lessons: Mall parking lots are good places for driving lessons or other car-related fun at night; they provide a lot of open space, with only a few light poles and the occasional tree as obstacles.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: No matter how attractive your mom was in the ’50s, you shouldn’t get together with her. Also, when hanging out in mall parking lots at night, watch out for murderous Libyan terrorists.
Tim And Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (2011)
Plot: Best-friend filmmakers Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim squander a billion-dollar budget forked over by a ruthless producer (a pickled Robert Loggia). During an evening of drunken, druggy cavorting (which also includes a penis-piercing and surgical arm-severing), they serendipitously happen across an ad offering a cool billion for their services reviving a struggling middle-American shopping centre. With a 10-digit debt to repay, Tim and Eric take over the decrepit S’Wallow Valley Mall from its high-strung owner (Will Ferrell) and set about rallying its renters, and a few live-in vagrants, to fix the place up.
Uses for a mall: Billion Dollar Movie holds to a somewhat outdated idea of malls as smorgasbords of American commerce where you can visit Starbucks, head next door to put a down payment on an electric bed-maker at Sharper Image, then go across the way for another Starbucks. Like most everything bearing Tim and Eric’s surrealist imprint, the S’Wallow Valley Mall takes this idea to nightmarishly comic heights. The place includes a used-toilet-paper outlet, a sword store operated by a psychotically aggravated Will Forte, a bread-only restaurant called Inbreadables, and a fecal-healing clinic. It also has a wolf. On a structural level, the film’s setting provides the basis for a string of comic vignettes, with each store serving as a jumping-off point for Tim and Eric’s uniquely wacko humor.
Practical, universal lessons: With a little elbow grease and a double dose of can-do attitude, even the most run-down places can be restored to something approaching habitability.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Don’t work yourself into a billion dollars of debt, especially if you’re borrowing the money from Robert Loggia. Also, the best way to get rid of a mall-wolf is to distract it with a sickly man-child covered in pepperoni pizza, obviously.
Crazy Heart (2009)
Plot: An alcoholic former country-music star (Jeff Bridges) ekes out a living on the road, living hand-to-mouth and trying, in a vague and weary way, to better himself. When he meets Maggie Gyllenhaal and the two start a relationship, he starts pulling his life together, but while looking after her young son at a shopping mall, Bridges stops for a few drinks and loses him. She breaks up with him, which becomes a catalyst for him to pursue sobriety and self-control in a serious, dedicated way and to write the song that turns his career around.
Uses for a mall: As a setting for self-discovery amid a personal bottoming-out. Also a something-for-everyone wonderland where adults get booze and kids get to play with fun new security-guard friends.
Practical, universal lessons: Living up to responsibilities is more important than self-indulgence. What seems like a small step off the wagon could have monumental consequences.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Bars in malls are pretty tacky.