Gangway! Fart jokes approaching!

 

New Skew

Kevin Smith goes Hollywood with
Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.

by Coury Turczyn

 

It must be recognized that Kevin Smith, esteemed director of Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, and Dogma, has crafted the finest dick jokes in all of cinema history. But I must admit that there are times–late at night, as I suddenly lie awake in a cold sweat–when I wonder if that's really the kind of achievement worthy of the critical regard Mr. Smith has thus far received. Awards at the Cannes, Sundance, and Independent Spirit film events, appearances on The Tonight Show, the cover of Time…and all for immortal lines of dialogue like, "You love the cock."

Of course, there is more to Kevin Smith's films than just penis references (there are the fart jokes, for instance)–but I doubt whether it's enough to warrant all the hullabaloo Smith manages to cause every time he makes a movie. His films are neither crimes against God nor startling glimpses into genius. They are, however, exactly the kinds of movies you'd expect to get if you plucked a comic-book geek from New Jersey and allowed him to make movies with his pals: big, sloppy messes that intermittently amuse and offend. Nothing wrong with that, certainly–but I've always wondered why Smith routinely gets the auteur treatment for a body of work that could most accurately be described as amateurish.

Yet, despite his lack of technical prowess and his inability to write a cohesive script, Kevin Smith is an important filmmaker in one respect: He finds the characters that Hollywood doesn't even know exist. His movies are compelling because he takes viewers into a nerd underworld of comic book artists, convenience-store clerks, and shopping-mall losers–not simply to mock them, but to give us a look at lives that otherwise wouldn't make it into the movies. As it happens, most of these characters are pretty damn vulgar, spewing lines of profanity that can be either really funny or really stupid… making you wonder whether Smith is the best person to edit his own scripts. Usually, his movies start fresh and end flat, unable to sustain their characters with a well-told story.

With Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Smith offers his fans a celebration of his own "View Askew" universe of New Jersey characters. Just as in the comic books Smith adores (and writes for professionally), the characters in each of his films sometimes cross over to the other stories, like Batman making a guest appearance in a Superman book. In JASBSB, Smith rounds them all up for what has lately become an inescapable genre: the brainless on-the-road comedy. While it certainly works well on that level, JASBSB is also the least New Jersey-esque of Smith's "New Jersey trilogy" (this being film number four). At times, it's almost Hollywood-slick.

For his title heroes, Smith selected the buffoonish duo from Clerks who hung outside the convenience store selling pot and occasionally rapping. Jay (Jason Mewes) is the skinny, long-haired trash-talker who believes he's the neighborhood mack daddy; Silent Bob (Smith) is the chunky fellow in the leather trenchcoat who doesn't talk much but employs many of John Belushi's better facial expressions. In Clerks, you got the sense that these weren't just fictional characters, but that they very well could be actual people from the streets of New Jersey. With their appearances in Smith's other films, they became progressively more cartoonish until now, in their own movie, they've attained full comic-book hero status.

In JASBSB, the undynamic duo learn that a movie is being shot in Hollywood adapting the comic book based on their likenesses, Bluntman and Chronic. Not only have they not gotten paid, but they also discover that 14-year-old boys have been flaming them on the Internet. Thus, our heroes vow to stop the film's production in order to save their reputations among the Gameboy set. They hit the road to Los Angeles, and their adventures include hearing a ridiculous lecture from George Carlin on the imperatives of giving oral sex to any car driver who picks them up, meeting a gang of hot girls (including teen-movie-babe Shannon Elizabeth), and crossing paths with a vigilant Federal wildlife officer (Will Ferrell).

As usual, the jokes have about a 50 percent hit ratio. Smith seems equally comfortable providing lowest-common-denominator gags (a girl farts! WA-HA-HAA!) and clever satire. When the "boys" (they must be in their 30s) finally make it to Hollywood, they crash the set of Good Will Hunting II–with Ben Affleck and Matt Damon screaming at production assistants and director Gus Van Sant in the corner quietly counting his cash. What follows is a fine parody of the Hollywood movie machine, capped by a laugh-out-loud action sequence starring none other than Mark Hamill. Could this have been written by the same director who started the film with a scene showing Jay dropping his pants to prove to a cop that he used rolling papers to plug his ass? Sadly, yes.

Even with such toilet humor, JASBSB stands as Kevin Smith's most traditional movie (even the camera work seems more professional). In his earlier films, he earned a reputation as a master of profane dialogue–long conversations on embarrassing topics that are simultaneously funny and discomforting. But not in JASBSB. Here you won't find 15-minute discourses on the hazards of self-fellation. Instead, Smith's dialogue has been boiled down to its very essence: "You dumb fuck." Not a moment goes by without one character cheerfully describing the other as a fuck who happens to be very stupid or very gay. I guess this is supposed to be good-natured banter New Jersey-style, but it makes the characters more infantile than "real."

I suppose Smith's intention was to make a purely fun, action-oriented comedy with few pauses for reflection–just like all those other studio comedies. It's entertaining enough to please his fans and win over some new ones, but JASBSB could've used a little less Hollywood, a little more New Jersey, and a good editor.

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