In 1999 we were driving around Birmingham, the UK’s Motor City, when I was surprised to see that the biggest roadside billboards were pushing the movie we were going to see anyway. That week’s unlikely blockbuster was “Dogma”, the 4th film from director Kevin Smith’s View Askewniverse. The preceding 3 were some of the freshest, filthiest & funniest American films around but hardly the product to accompany the popcorn for a packed multiplex on a Saturday night. We do hate it when our friends become successful, I need not have worried. “Dogma” is a very good movie but a scatological, theological, intelligent film where the heart-throb angels hack off their wings & Alanis Morrisette plays God was not going to push ahead of Kevin Spacey’s mid-life crisis or “The Blair Witch Project” at the box office.
For his next film Kevin went back to the dick, fart & drug jokes big time. If you are either under 18 or are easily offended then please do not press play on the approaching clip.
From “Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back” (2001), the touching story of how our favourite small-time drug dealers met. I doubt that when Smith was maxing out his credit card to make “Clerks”, he & his stoner friends thought that there would be over $30 million of the Weinstein brothers’ money around to film himself (Silent Bob) & Jason Mewes (Jay) screwing around & doing some crazy shit. The rap sets the tone for the movie which then happily rolls around in the gutter for 105 minutes. I absolutely get the criticism of Smith’s films, the self-indulgence, the dumbing down &, more seriously, homophobia but come on, “Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back” is not about pie-fucking, there is no-one called Wayans in the film. This was their 5th time around, you should know what was coming. Reviews threw around words like juvenile, shambolic & boorish as if these were bad things.
For two & a half films Kevin Smith seemed to do little more than write about young Americans talking about sex & Star Wars. He did it well, smart & sassy. Then the second half of “Chasing Amy” became the sharpest, most discerning examination of modern sexual attitudes in American cinema for some time. It was not really a surprise, the intelligence was always there, but it was good to see he could do it. I watched “Chasing Amy” with my favourite teenage lesbian niece & instantly it was her new #1 movie. After “Strike Back” Smith made another film about romance.
“Jersey Girl” (2004) became an ill-fated project when his star & long time collaborator, Ben Affleck’s romantic involvement with J-Lo became of interest to everyone in the world except you & I. “Bennifer” were quickly figures of derision, their film “Gigli” set new standards for critical & box office disasters. It was winning awards for being the Worst Thing Ever & the couple’s next movie was bound to suffer from the backwash. Now I am a Kevin Smith fan, I like it when there is less testosterone , more engagement of the brain & the heart. I really do like “Jersey Girl”.
There is a lot to like. The soundtrack has Springsteen singing Tom Waits, Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open The Door”, “High” by the Cure &, surprisingly, a track by Mike Heron off of the Incredible String Band. It is one of the Laws of Hollywood that any film is improved by the casting of Liv Tyler. The usual cameo appearances by Smith’s mates is freshened up by Will Smith while George Carlin, Mike Starr & Stephen Root are funny guys. Raquel Castro, 9 years old, as smart as a whip & as cute as a button is just the ticket. The clip is from an elementary school concert when, after interminable versions of a song from “Cats”, the family perform an entirely unsuitable excerpt from “Sweeney Todd”. The look between father & daughter is not the only sentimental moment of the film but is the pay-off to an enjoyable story about some pleasant people. I have watched too many rom coms, we all have. I would prefer Kevin Smith to make these films than to watch any more with the cold heart of Stiller or the dead eyes of Aniston. In the credits to “Mallrats” Smith had thanked John Landis & John Hughes for the entertainment provided by their films in the 1980s. “Jersey Girl” is his attempt at such a movie.
So to “Clerks II” (2006), a film that Smith always had up his sleeve if he really needed to make some money for Miramax. The original is an indie classic & the sequel has plenty going for it. It’s a better late than never coming of age movie with crackling dialogue, lots of laughs & a shocking donkey sex scene which still makes you blink. There is also this scene when Rosario Dawson dances to the Jackson 5. It’s part of the deal that the geeks & nerds who direct movies get to make the most beautiful women in the world look good. Hitchcock’s unmatched ability now seems overshadowed by his relationship with his female stars. Woody Allen was doing it in the 1970s. Tarantino was getting Uma Thurman to dance while both he & Smith have filmed Salma Hayek strutting her stuff in her underwear. Rosario Dawson is, in the words of a friend, “always watchable”. She was great in “Sin City” & “Death Proof” & I guess that she is a big star now. She has never appeared to be as sweet, natural & beautiful as in this scene dancing to “ABC”.
It seems that Kevin Smith has stopped making movies now. He spent too long in the bosom of the Weinsteins so missed the chance to undertake the superhero film he should have made. Ah, I’m sure that he would have not given the studio what they wanted anyway but it could have been fine, career ending fun. The 3 he has made since “Clerks II” are of varying quality. He made money with the Bruce Willis vehicle “Cop Out” but Bruce complained about the director’s on-set marijuana consumption. “Red State” is an enjoyable genre movie with a twist which, as his career completed a circle, he had to finance himself. I have these last 2 on DVD, I am a fan. My friends & I like to watch the characters in Smith’s films talking shit to each other just as much as we enjoy it in Tarantino’s movies. It does not matter that it can be a little basic & it certainly does not have to be particularly about anything. Man, let those who are outraged be so. Kevin Smith is a funny, intelligent film maker & his slacker, stoner comedies are a refreshing change from the formulaic routines of mainstream cinema. And that is enough.