When it comes to indie filmmakers, there’ve always traditionally been two paths: those who make a horror/sci-fi/action film and manage to break in that way (Sam Raimi, Tobe Hooper, George A. Romero, Robert Rodriguez, Christopher Nolan), and those who make the intellectual conversation movie that plays mostly in arthouse cinemas (umm…this one’s a bit tougher…I guess arguably Spike Lee and Richard Linklater).
Kevin Smith is an unusual figure in this dichotomy, because he made the conversation movie, yet managed to gain the cult fanbase normally reserved for comic book and sci-fi franchises! Today Smith is a God Among Nerds, speaking regularly at Comic-Con to his diehard fans. How did he get there? Interestingly, from being a fanboy himself, and making films about fanboys being fanboys, and managing to create work that somehow attracted its own fans in equal numbers.
Yet, while Smith has garnered much respect as a writer, personality, speaker, and podcast host, his directing career has been inconsistent. Let’s go over every single Kevin Smith film:
THE GOLDEN AGE (1994-1999)
Shot in 16mm black and white and released on the heels of PULP FICTION, this film is a classic that still holds up. I think part of the appeal can be summed up as follows: it’s a conversation movie that makes no effort to be pretentious, nor even pretends to be an arthouse film. CLERKS follows a day in the lives of two slackers as they complain about movies, blowjobs, etc, in the midst of antics around them. Who can forget Randal listing the names of pornographic films in front of the little girl, or the “37 dicks” gag, or fucking a dead guy? Everything has a gritty neorealist feel–which makes the cartoonish things that happen offscreen even funnier. Seeing this for the first time at 16, I was taken by the free-flowing editing style, finding it interesting how Smith would sometimes cut around dialog, showing us Jay and Silent Bob hovering around, in a stream of conscious way. Later I learned that Smith was simply using these shots as cutaways due to the dialog footage being difficult to edit together. I love the way Jay and Silent Bob are in their first appearance, and wish they had stayed this way.
Most of us watched CLERKS after seeing Smith’s later works, and so naturally appreciated it better as the origin of his style and an indicator of how far he came as a filmmaker. I can’t help but wonder how I would feel about this film had I never seen any of his other stuff. Would I still like it? Would the low-production value turn me off? CLERKS, as cheap as it may be, is never boring.
If I did have one criticism of the film, it comes to the ending. The original cut ended strangely with Dante being killed. This ending doesn’t really work and so it was cut, leaving the film with Dante closing the store. While this revised ending is alright, I did always feel it was a bit abrupt, and left a lot hanging in the air. What happened to Dante, Randal, and the Quick Stop? I’ll discuss this further when we get to CLERKS II.
All in all, any director should be proud to start their career off with a good film. Smith started off his with a masterpiece.
This is often cited as the weakest entry of Smith’s Golden Age, but its reputation has gone up over the years, perhaps in response to how dissatisfied everyone got with his later films. MALLRATS is essentially an attempt to remake CLERKS in a mall, showing you all the cartoonish mayhem that happened offscreen in the first film. None of the new characters are particularly compelling, but it’s good for a chuckle. Smith has described it as “an untalented kid’s attempt to recreate the studio comedies he grew up watching.” A friend of mine summed it up perfectly: “MALLRATS is actually a good movie if you accept that it as just a comedy and nothing more.” Aside from that, it’s notable for being the first Smith film to feature several of his regulars: Jason Lee, Ben Affleck, and Joey Lauren Adams. And that’s really all I have to say about it.
Quite possibly his most mature film, CHASING AMY is a wonderful engaging look young people in relationships. Initially it seems like an examination of homosexuality, but by the end has come to examine sexuality in general. The dialog is as honest and raw as it was in CLERKS but is steered in a more serious direction, despite many moments of comedy that are purely Smith being peppered in. The plot synopsis would be “A young man falls in love with a lesbian” but that is greatly shortchanging the deep insight into character Smith has written here. All three of the main leads, Affleck, Adams, and Lee, are great. Jay and Silent Bob reappear in a single scene, and the fact that Smith ends up giving Silent Bob the most to say he ever has suggests how personal this film was.
One of the most frequent criticisms thrown at Smith is that he’s a writer more than a director; his films have great dialog but are visually boring. With a shoestring budget flick like CLERKS this could be forgiven, but CHASING AMY seemed to be when this critique started. Watching the film today, the cinematography does seem very flat, almost like a play. Check out this interview where Smith discusses the film, revealing that he cut the whole film in nine days, which may have taken its toll on the finished product:
As a comedy, the movie is hysterical! It has some incredibly funny dialog, mostly delivered by Alan Rickman, Jason Lee, and Jason Mewes‘s characters. As an adventure movie, it has a very creative plot and keeps you hooked throughout its journey to its epic and apocalyptic conclusion.
Where the movie fails and fails miserably is at being any sort of actual commentary on religion. Despite the many conversations about religion and dogmas held throughout the film…nothing all that “deep” is ever really said. The movie ultimately has a shallow message of “God is cool. Just have a sense of humor and an open mind.” And this is a shame because Smith is clearly a bright guy who knows a lot about church history; he even claims in the closing credits that the film represents his lifetime’s worth of religious reflection. You’d think he’d have said something a little more sophisticated.
In fact, despite being somewhat controversial when it came out, the movie never really is all that shocking. Yes, I realize there are religious zealots out there who get “offended” by even the slightest things (Angels and prophets using curse words! Jesus having a 13th apostle! Jesus being black! God being a woman!). But with all due respect, none of those things are REALLY controversial. I would have liked the movie to have been deeper and delved into greater issues like: the possibility of God not existing, or Jesus having been an invented character, or exposing the corruption of the Catholic Church, or what about the role of Judaism and Islam? That would have given the film a lot more weight in my opinion.
Fortunately, as I said, the movie is a lot of fun, and so I am able to sit back and laugh at what it offers. Rickman, Lee, and Salma Hayek all give the best performances. I do feel Linda Fiorentino is somewhat underwhelming; despite being the lead character, she frequently seems like the dullest thing in the film. I have heard that she and Smith did not get along, and maybe that affected why there seems to be so little to Bethany.
DOGMA is a very fun and entertaining movie, but alas, it’s not very deep, despite what the director seemed to think of it. Listening to Smith on the DVD commentary track is almost sad; he talks about how he was disappointed the movie didn’t get Oscar nominations. Well, here’s why: BECAUSE YOUR MOVIE HAS A SCENE WITH A SHIT MONSTER! Smith could have made a stronger, deeper film if he had really tried. Instead he just made a little comedy, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a very good movie to laugh with; it’s just not good for much more than that.
THE DARK AGES (2000-2010)
I almost skipped over this, but I thought it was worth giving a brief mention. In early 2000, ABC aired a short-lived animated series based on CLERKS, basically continuing the adventures of Dante, Randal, Jay, and Silent Bob, but using the fast paced animated and movie-reference humor of FAMILY GUY.
The series only lasted six episodes and while I do feel the first episode was a weak start, the remaining five are very strong. My fellow LET US NERD blogger Greg Hayhurst wrote a more in-depth review of the series here. All in all, I found the series enjoyable, but think six episodes was a good run and don’t know much longer it would have really lasted. Honestly, I think CLERKS was an odd choice for an animated adaptation from the start. The commentary track on the DVD is more entertaining than the show itself!
Jay and Silent Bob, who’ve been reoccurring supporting characters in the previous films, star in a madcap comedy across the country, trying to stop a film from getting made, while encountering many Hollywood cameos. It’s very much in the style of PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE or the MUPPET movies.
Smith wanted to make one final View Askewniverse film, filled with in-jokes to his previous films, tying all the stories together. But the result is just an uninspired comedy filled with juvenile humor and a major step down from the more intellectually ambitious CHASING AMY and DOGMA. And whereas MALLRATS may have been silly but at least had the charm of being a small intimate film from a fresh new director, Smith’s heart is just clearly not in any of this material. What was so great about his earlier films was the raw honesty of the dialog: having the characters talk about sex, blowjobs, and the things people think but don’t say. But Smith seemed to have misunderstood that and thought the actual dick and fart jokes themselves were what people wanted, and so made that his trademark.
I also realized how much the character of Jay had changed over this series. When first introduced in CLERKS, he was a juvenile delinquent and seemed like a real kid from the streets. With each movie he got progressively dumber, and by this film he was just a combination of Beavis and Butt-Head, but even more misogynistic and homophobic! I honestly didn’t feel he was a character I wanted to spend an entire movie with. Supposedly Heather Graham was offered the role of Justice but turned it down because she couldn’t understand why her character would ever fall in love with Jay, and I completely understand. That’s right, folks, she’d fall for Austin Powers but not Jay! As for Silent Bob, there isn’t much to his character. He’s just a quiet sidekick who’s revealed to be very intelligent every time he speaks. This ultimately begs the question of why would he be hanging around with Jay in the first place. I think the fact that Smith was starring in the film ultimately hindered his directing.
All in all, this is just a soulless film; it’s not original, it’s not clever, it’s not funny, it represented the weakest elements of the previous Smith films, and as far as providing some sort of “closure” to the View Askewniverse before Smith moved on the greener pastures, it fails. But all of us Smith fans were left wondering: what were these greener pastures…?
This movie isn’t as bad as many would have you believe. It’s actually got some nice moments. But overall, there was just a feeling of “Eh, that’s it? These are the greener pastures Smith was moving on to? This is a generic Hollywood movie.”
JERSEY GIRL tells the story of a single father, featuring real-life couple at the time Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez. It shows Affleck going through the challenges of raising his daughter after the death of Lopez’s character, as well as him later starting a second romance with Liv Tyler.
Again, none of this is bad; it’s just that it’s a sentimental story we’ve all seen before. Smith’s influence is clearly present in the dialog at times, but for the most part it’s just a series of Hollywood tropes. It also didn’t help that, being released in the aftermath of GIGLI, much of Lopez’s role was cut out, leading to a film that was reshaped in the editing room. I don’t think the final film really represented what Smith set out to do at all. On the positive side, the film does feature a rare serious performance from George Carlin, which for me is the highlight of the piece.
I was ready to hate this film. I thought “A sequel made twelve years after the original film, and in color? It has to be bad. Besides, I thought Smith was done with these characters; now he’s running right back to them as soon as JERSEY GIRL flops? Doesn’t show much confidence.”
But, to my surprise, CLERKS II is a fun and endearing comedy that manages to recreate much of the original’s charm. Dante and Randal are now in their late 30’s and working at a fast-food restaurant. While it becomes clear that Smith is not as close to this profession as he was to being a convenience store clerk, he still does a good job giving us a loving portrait of how these characters turned out. There’s also a new supporting character named Elias, who’s line about his girlfriend’s “pussy-troll” is one of my favorite jokes in a movie. Overall, the body of the film is just okay, but it’s the end that really ties it together for me.
CLERKS II managed to successfully do what JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK failed at: it brought closure to this world. It felt as if, after the first film, the animated series, and seeing Dante and Randal in various other appearances, I had now finally seen these characters reach their ultimate goal. Everything that the first film’s abrupt ending left me wondering about was answered here.
To sum it up: CLERKS is a great movie with a so-so ending. CLERKS II is a so-so movie with a great ending.
Okay, I haven’t actually seen these two, but both seemed to represent to me how far Smith had fallen from his distinct style. ZACK AND MIRI looked to me like Smith trying to do a Judd Apatow comedy, and having the same result as JERSEY GIRL. Some of the dialog sounded distinctly-Smith, but aside from that, it looked like a run-of-the-mill “eh” comedy. But, I do realize it’s unfair for me to critique something I haven’t seen, so here’s a review from a colleague:
“Well, the premise had Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks pairing up to make a porno spoof called Star Whores as they play broke-ass people in their 20’s. Basically like Smith doing a kind of remake of his own story of making CLERKS, about a bunch of friends making a movie, and then the romantic complications between Zack and Miri where they realize they have feelings and such. Jason Mewes was really good in it too, proof he can act without only playing Jay. And there is a fantastic scene with Brandon Routh and Justin Long. Its not a must-see but it was very funny and had heart.” -Filmmaker Jack Gattanella
As for COP OUT, I have no interest whatsoever in that. It was universally panned and hated, leading Smith to launch a tirade against film critics. It’s also the first film he directed but didn’t write. I fail to understand the studio logic behind that decision: “Here’s a guy who’s regularly criticized for being a better writer than a director, so let’s him have him not write and just direct!” No wonder it turned out bad!
THE RENAISSANCE (2011-onward hopefully)
I feel about RED STATE in regard to Kevin Smith the same way I feel about LIFE STINKS (1993) in regard to Mel Brooks; both films are flawed, but I applaud them as representations of a director stepping out his usual space.
RED STATE is a gritty horror/action film featuring teenage boys who get captured by a strange cult based on the Westboro Baptist Church, featuring an incredible performance by Michael Parks as a Fred Phelps caricature. The second half of the movie turns into a violent shoot-out film, showing the ATF to be as corrupt and gun-toting as the religious fanatics themselves.
All in all, this is just such a great departure for Smith, finally doing something new from his View Askew comedies, giving us something dark, creepy, disturbing, and filled with social commentary. Religious fundamentalism is a major problem in our society often ignored and I’m glad Smith is confronting it. The cinematography is also some of Smith’s best, shot on the Red by David Klein, Smith’s original DP from CLERKS.
Sadly, I think the film loses its way as it goes along and doesn’t really know how to end. I question Smith’s bizarre decision to have the climax happen off-screen as John Goodman tells us about it during an inquest. Still, I think RED STATE represents a new phase of Smith’s career.
Smith has been saying he’s going to retire from directing for a while. First he said CLERKS III would be his swan song, but has just recently announced a new horror film called TUSK. Check out the video here:
I like the idea of RED STATE, flawed as it may have been, representing a new phase of his career, one more mature and slightly darker than ever before. And I think his final films, whatever they may be, will continue in this path. Kevin Smith started out with a very fresh voice in 1994, but lost his way in the Hollywood machine. In many ways, he’s the poster child for all of us wannabe-filmmakers who write screenplays in our free time and dream of making it big while being fanboys of other films. Like Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson, he was an indie talent of the ’90’s, but unlike them, never seemed to grow past the 2000’s. His decision to retire so young may seem odd to some, but it makes perfect sense to me. This is someone who loves to write but has been hit hard many times, and is not afraid to speak openly about his dislike of others, as made famous in his rant against Tim Burton and has resulted in some of his former colleagues speaking negatively of him. Smith has cited distribution politics and the manner in which making films like ZACK AND MIRI “adulterated” his own identity as a filmmaker for why he is retiring, saying, “I don’t have the same passion for it I used to. I don’t have any stories left to tell.” Smith has even been honest enough to say that Harvey Weinstein developed his career as a celebrity auteur because “my films were never strong enough to stand up on their own.” In the last few years, Smith has become more famous as a speaker and podcast host, and maybe this is where he should stay. An incredibly funny guy and lover of comics, it would be a very appropriate second act to his career.