Kool-Aid for the Smith Cult
Here’s the short version of this review: Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is a very funny movie. It has few pretensions to be anything else, and if you laughed at the characters in Kevin Smith’s first four films and the Clerks cartoon (which is the only reason you’d be considering seeing this movie), you’ll laugh at this one too. Go, enjoy.
For the long version of this review, I have to talk about Smith’s career, because by making his least pretentious film, he has ironically produced his most successful film. Lack of balance has been a problem for Smith’s films in the past. His skills as a writer—characterization, dialogue, and, to a lesser degree, plot—are usually overwhelmed by his weaknesses as a director. This imbalance has been much discussed in reviews of his work over the years, and I do not intend to go into it at length. But, the basic criticism has been that his films are not visually interesting, that he tends to lock down the camera and have his characters enter, stop, and speak his dialogue. There is truth to this charge. And as a writer, good as he is, he has needed to pluck his prize roses. Films like Chasing Amy lost credibility when the leads delivered long speeches, often conjuring images of Smith himself at the keyboard, rather than the character onscreen.
Yet, even these problems are not consistent: Chasing Amy—arguably Smith’s best film—includes a couple of beautiful shots; Jay and Silent Bob is successful because it lacks the Smithesque “static effect.” The filmmaker has said in interviews that he worked harder on the visual aspects of this film than others, and it’s something he should continue to do. I should say something about the preceding comments: Please note that I do not intend a contradiction when I say that Jay and Bob is Smith’s “most successful” film and Amy his “best.” The new picture does not try to hit us as hard as Amy did, it does not want to touch and surprise us, and so it is less damaged when it stumbles.
Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is a deliberate “hail and farewell” to Smith’s first seven years of work, containing references to all his previous films, not a few returning characters, and an appropriately triumphant send-off for his cult heroes, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith). If you are even considering seeing this film, the likelihood is that you know Smith’s previous films and like Jay and Bob as characters. This is fortunate for me because, on paper (or computer screen, as the case may be), it’s hard to convey what’s so endearing about a couple of foul-mouthed, drug-dealing, prat-falling, Star Wars-obsessed, homophobic, women-phobic twits. But there it is: Jay and Bob are funny; they’re even likable. The credit for this has to go to Smith as a writer. He’s working a ‘90s (and now 2001) version of a classic comedic pairing: the guy who will say just about anything, and the guy who doesn’t say much of anything. These characters are familiar, from Marx brothers movies, Animal House, among other sources. What makes Jay and Bob special to their fans and funny to casual observers (or folks in the middle like me) is how centered they are in their generation. Their references are our references, because their culture, largely, is our culture: Pop goes the world.
Over the years and over the films, Smith and Mewes have turned into quite a duo, reacting to each other with real comic skill. With Jay in particular, arrested adolescence lets him get away with a lot. He is essentially an overgrown version of the 14- or 15-year-old who has just learned how to shock the authority figures. He curses, does drugs, insults his “hetero life partner” Bob, calls men “cock-smokers” and “ball-lickers,” and calls women “bitches,” before, during, and after trying to lay them. Yet, he is not a malevolent character, just young and stupid. If he forced drugs on kids, if he gay-bashed, if he beat or raped women, he’d be despicable. But he doesn’t, and everyone in Smith’s “ViewAskewniverse” seems to know that Jay is just an amusing idiot. Smith as Bob balances Mewes as Jay as well. They’re like sweet and sour sides of the same personality (presumably Smith’s). One senses that even if Jay wanted to try half the shit he talks, Bob would steer him away from it. We see this in the new film in a scene in which Jay, considering dropping his pants in front of a woman, looks to the traditional devil/angels on his shoulders, who tell him to look to Bob. Does Bob think it’s a good idea? Bob does not. So Jay doesn’t do it.
Fuck, I’m overanalyzing. Let’s just cut to a plot summary. The film opens perfectly with two young mothers leaving their infants in strollers outside a familiar convenience store. One child begins chanting the word “fuck” as if he has just learned it, and a dissolve/fast forward reveals the children to be, of course, Jay and Silent Bob, now adult men (well . . . as “adult” as these characters can be) still standing in front of the convenience store, still cursing to the beat. (The young Silent Bob, incidentally, is played by Smith’s infant daughter: awwww!)
On a trip to a local comic book store—run by Brodie (Jason Lee), last seen in Mallrats—they learn that a film is being made from the comic they inspired in Chasing Amy, Bluntman and Chronic. Incensed that they won’t see any money from the project, and even more bothered by malicious gossip on the internet, they decide to head to Hollywood to stop the movie. Actors from Smith’s previous films turn up throughout, sometimes playing one or more of their old characters (Lee also plays Banky from Amy, who is given some closure in an exchange that will give fans a laugh), sometimes as new characters (Chris Rock as a paranoid director). The plot is, of course, merely a framework onto which Smith throws a lot of jokes. And as thin as it is, it could actually stand to be thinner—the film sags a bit in the middle when the pair get involved in a diamond heist caper. We just don’t care about this, but what the hell, we do care about Jay and Bob, and we will follow them to the final freeze-frame and leave with smiles on our faces.
Partially because of how attuned to current culture it is, and because it’s just slight, the movie is unlikely to become a classic in 10 years. But right now and right here, it is extremely funny. Funny enough that I’m already anticipating the DVD release, so that I can catch the lines I missed because the audience and I were laughing so hard. One half-anticipates such a release to be part of a boxed set commemorating the pair—though this is difficult because of the varied distributors of Smith’s films—as this will be the last significant appearance of Jay and Silent Bob in a live action film (an animated film is planned).
One of the curses of becoming “hot” with your first film, as Smith did with Clerks in 1994, is that you must then mature under a more watchful public eye than you might prefer. Jay and Silent Bob seems to be Smith’s attempt to rid himself of the juvenilia that threw previous, more ambitious films off balance (think of the shit monster in Dogma, which was otherwise, I think, a serious attempt at making a spiritual film). The real test of Smith’s development will be his return to the personal territory of Chasing Amy and Dogma, without the crutches of his first films (apart from, presumably, some familiar faces in front of and behind the cameras). He has promised such a film, dealing with his attitudes toward fatherhood. Maybe that’s why he had to say goodbye to his fictional “children” with Jay and Silent Bob. Hopefully, he will continue to improve the things that are good and fix the things that are bad about his films. Because, when he’s good, he’s a riot, (as here) and sometimes even painfully touching (as in Chasing Amy). But when he’s bad, his films are like watching filmed paint dry.
At this point, Smith is still a deeply flawed, but equally talented, promising, and interesting filmmaker. His next film should be a watershed, if he can pull it together I would like to believe, and frankly I do hope, that in another seven years, we’ll all be saying, “Remember how uneven Kevin Smith’s films used to be? What the hell was he ... stoned?”
And, oh yeah: Snootch to the nootch.