[22 February 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Somewhere, the marketing executives behind Cop Out are laughing. Or rubbing their hands together in greedy anticipation. Or praying that none of the recent fat flap between the noted indie director and Southwest Airlines rubs off negatively on their upcoming buddy comedy. In a move that seems more based on friendship than box office bankability, star Bruce Willis got his buddy Kevin Smith to helm a film he had nothing to do with. He didn’t create the jaunty police laugher. He didn’t craft the script (something he has done on every previous film he’s made). He basically came on as a filmmaker for hire. Now, thanks to weight and the way in which the flying industry function circa 2010, Smith has become part of a plateau he rarely frequents - the tabloid-rich realm of TMZ
On the 19 February episode of Bill Maher’s Real Time, the jocular host took the noted filmmaker to task, arguing that fat people basically need to nut up or shut up. In essence, Maher’s point was that, if you normally have to abide by a surreal set of size rules (obese flyers frequently have to buy two seats to travel on major carriers these days) you shouldn’t complain when you try and circumvent them. Specifically, Smith had two seats booked on another flight, saw he could take an earlier standby departure, and then Tweeted about being asked to leave the plane when the pilot declared him - and his one seat - a security risk. The entire episode became one of those drawn out slow news day featured stories of the 24 hour cycle, pulling in everyone from the pro-porcine movement (which Maher also chastised) to those who think all chubby people ‘suck’.
Without getting into the civil rights issues involved in airborne sardine can travel (when it went from a luxury to a necessity, the airlines responded in space-saving kind), it’s truly odd to see one controversy challenged celebrity jumping all over another. Maher, a noted proponent of marijuana use, got the rest of his panel (including the pervertly non-PC Seth MacFarlane, hooker looker Elliot Spitzer, and black lesbian comic Wanda Sykes) to agree that vices need to be taxed. He also led a roundtable criticism of Smith’s girth, extrapolated that out to a condemnation of all calls for “fat tolerance” and ended with a series of jokes about “second hand flesh” and aesthetic/physical discomfort. In the span of less than five minutes, Smith went from a semi-famous director airing his questionable grievance over the post-millennial version of the Inter-network to indicative of a nation out of control.
Considering how much they have in common, such a position from the political satirist against the maker of Clerks seems unreal. They both enjoy a toke or two (or twelve). They each have fought for the right to speak their mind - Maher against ABC post-9/11, Smith against the MPAA with many of his movies - and each one exists on what would best be called the cult fringes of fame. Most know their name, some know their work, and a chosen few champion their artistry. Maher may win the Q-rating battle here, if only because he has a weekly series which allows him to bully and whine about the latest Washington fiascos. His “New Rules” are typically thoughtful and winning, and his last act rant is almost always pointed and powerful. Smith, on the other hand, makes movies riddled with dick jokes and toilet humor. While his dialogue is often witty and insightful, and his emotions sincere and well considered, they are frequently laced with expletives and gross-out conceits.
So what does this have to do with Cop Out, you ask? How does the fact that Smith, a confirmed member of the ‘calorie challenged’ brigade, found himself in such an airplane position affect a R-rated police comedy about sports memorabilia. The cynic inside could argue that, as a man of many pounds, the filmmaker could have easily dismissed the issue and problem with Southwest as part of his workaday world and accept the company’s paltry admittance and apology. He is probably used to such “too large to ride” ridicule. But Smith’s no dummy. In fact, some might call him shameless. He’s got a movie to promote. He’s got a profile to increase. And if a little good natured bile hurled an already under fire industry can get butts in seats and some future consideration for other directing for hire gigs, why not go for it. One thing’s for certain. A few weeks ago, most of mainstream America didn’t have a clear clue on who Smith was. Today, he’s a blurry cellphone photo away from immortality.
Even better, Smith is one of the few smart celebrities to uses the web for its amazing mass hysteria properties. His SModcast (with producer pal Scott Mosier) is a regular forum for his thoughtful - and often profane - musings, while the various websites and blogs he frequents keeps his name high amongst geek nation. Again, it’s safe to say that more people now know Smith’s side of the story than anything that Maher - or Bill O’Reilly, or Entertainment Tonight - have ventured to theorize. In most cases, he can set the agenda. He can paint the picture the way he wants. And when reporters and junket whores, and critics, and red carpet talking head discuss Cop Out, they have a free frame of reference and a built in causal connection between Smith, the news story, and the new film on the horizon to rely on.
Of course, no one believes this was all set up in advance. Smith could not have known that he would be offered a standby, only to have the pilot find a problem. There’s too much coincidence and happenstance to offer premeditation. But like all good hucksters, Smith can’t let a buzz-worthy opportunity pass him by. Cop Out remains a risk for the director. If it’s a hit, it will argue that the only thing keeping Kevin Smith from being a name Hollywood A-lister is his stubborn desire to script his own films. If it’s a flop - and frankly, poised against the remake of George Romero’s Crazies and a weakened released schedule in anticipation of Tim Burton/Disney’s 3D Alice in Wonderland, it shouldn’t be - it will prove that he is one artist who can’t venture beyond his own self-inscribed comfort zone.
As an issue, few are on Smith’s size side. We live in a world that currently believes in a senseless ideal of perfection that few can achieve, but all believe is a birthright. Any plus size individual - or even worse, a woman of normal body weight and regular curves - is a target, indicative of a fast food, high carb, careless diet drive to add as much placation (and therefore, bulk) to their personal life. Of course, not every case fits so neatly into a Biggest Loser lament. Sometimes, the subject adds fuel to the fire. Had this happened to Alfred Hitchcock several decades ago, the film industry would be fuming. Granted, prestige can prevent even the greatest backlash (albeit with exceptions - right late in life Orson Welles?). Kevin Smith is still an outsider in a business which babies its own. Cop Out might help him in - and the issue with Southwest might just be the ironic item that stamps his professional passport.