I guess you can’t blame Kevin Smith for just giving up. After four feature films from his View Askew production company, pundits and naysayers were still slamming the director of Clerks and Chasing Amy as a Gen-X wordsmith who made movies about as interesting to look at as a white wall. Sure, he could turn a phrase, even raise the occasional idea, but how much filmmaking ineptitude did one have to endure to get to them? Kevin Smith wasn’t a filmmaker; he was a movie geek with a camera.
It should come as little surprise, then, that Smith’s fifth film, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, is an expression of complete disdain for anything but his own private View Askew-niverse of industry buddies, axes to grind and childhood pop culture memories. “Fine,” Smith seems to be saying, “I’m not even going to bother trying to tell a story. I’m going to make a 98-minute in-joke out of all my other movies, stuff that pisses me off and stuff I always wanted to do in a movie.” Who needs an expansive visual repertoire when you can make an entire film that could be captured by one image: a huge middle finger raised at the rest of the world?
Kevin Smith can whip up crudely funny dialogue with the best of them, but Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back has to rank among the most massively self-absorbed comedies ever to earn a laugh. On the surface, it’s a farewell to the long-running title characters—foul-mouthed stoner/slacker Jay (Jason Mewes) and his sidekick Silent Bob (Smith himself)—that have appeared in all of Smith’s previous films. They’re on an episodic cross-country mission from New Jersey to Hollywood to thwart the making of a film loosely based on their lives, but more to the point, they’re on a mission to provide Smith with opportunities to indulge himself. Mission accomplished.
Smith has set all of his films in an interconnected universe, and Jay and Silent Bob often looks more like a big class reunion than a Hollywood film. Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson appear as the convenience store drones from Clerks; Jason Lee turns up as his characters from both Mallrats and Chasing Amy (though not his fallen angel from Dogma); Ben Affleck does similar double-duty as his Chasing Amy character and as himself in a very funny, self-deprecating turn with pal Matt Damon. Alums of previous Smith efforts fill nearly every role, with Chris Rock, George Carlin, Joey Lauren Adams and Shannen Doherty among those who stop by for a nod and a cup of coffee.
On his website, Smith has described this scattershot acknowledgement of his oeuvre as a valentine to supporters of his other films. There’s undoubtedly an element of fan appreciation at work, but it’s also true that Jay and Silent Bob’s loose structure and Hollywood-oriented plot allows him to make jokes about everything that has amused him or annoyed him over the past decade. Some of the time, it’s hilarious when Smith and his cast begin gnawing on the hand that feeds them. Affleck and Damon’s acidic putdowns of their respective career choices morph into a wicked parody of Good Will Hunting 2 (with director Gus Van Sant sitting in a nearby chair doing nothing but counting a big stack of money). James Van Der Beek and Jason Biggs also appear to puncture their own images, with American Pie’s Biggs lamenting that he’ll always be known as “the pie-fucker.”
In small doses, industry in-jokes can season a comedy nicely. But too often in Jay and Silent Bob, Smith’s jabs reek of simple petulance. He shreds the anonymous criticisms typical of movie websites like “Ain’t It Cool News” (while failing to accurately capture the heinous spelling and grammar typical of such messages). He re-visits his notorious trashing of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film Magnolia. And he even slaps around Miramax, which bailed out on Dogma when the subject matter proved too controversial. While he’s more than willing to skewer himself as well (including this film’s copious, already-notorious preponderance of gay jokes), Smith devotes too much time working out his “issues.”
Even more often than he grinds an axe, Smith uses Jay and Silent Bob to release his inner adolescent. He puts Shannon Elizabeth and Eliza Dushku in leather catsuits (not that you can blame him), brings in Mark Hammill so he can have a light saber duel with Luke Skywalker, and gets to jump on stage with Morris Day and the Time to boogie to “Jungle Love.” He quotes Scooby-Doo, Planet of the Apes, Land of the Lost and Scream, and still manages to find time for bonding with a rescued orangutan. It’s Kevin’s world, and if you find every pop culture reference as funny as he does, you’re welcome to stay.
It’s frustrating watching a smart guy like Smith spend so much time gazing at his navel, because when Jay and Silent Bob is funny—including a few noteworthy shots at the state of Utah—it’s very funny indeed. Even building an entire movie around Jay and Silent Bob—a shudder-inducing notion after their grating appearance in Dogma—doesn’t prove disastrous, with both Mewes and Smith showing a lighter touch this time around. There’s just too much devotion to ranting and riffing, including an entire third act that plays like a homage to Tim Burton’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.
That’s a rather ironic choice, considering Smith’s public, tongue-in-cheek feud with Burton over Burton’s rejection of Smith’s Superman Lives script (and more recently over whether Burton’s Planet of the Apes cribbed from a Smith-penned comic book). But even if Burton thought Smith had dissed him and ripped him off, it’s hard to imagine that Burton would make an entire movie dedicated to giving Smith the finger. Sometimes, instead of striking back, you’ve just got to let it go.
Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (R) ** Directed by Kevin Smith. Starring Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith and Shannon Elizabeth.