Betrayed by Kevin Smith
I am a little embarassed by the fact that I ever had any expectations of Kevin Smith as a film maker. But the truth is, once upon a time, I looked to Kevin Smith as a voice for my generation. It seems silly now. But in 1994, it was the truth.
I started my first job at 15. I was a stock boy at my dad’s convenience store. That’s how I was able to start working before 16. My dad was just a partner in the store. I answered to his partner who was also the store manager. I was, in retrospect, a pretty lousy stock boy. When I was old enough, I got put on the cash register. I’m sure I wasn’t any better at that.
I had a lot of customer service jobs all through college. So when Kevin Smith’s ode to minimum wage-earning slackers came out in 1994, I could seriously relate. I laughed my ass off the first time I saw Clerks. Sure, the production values were amateurish. But Smith did the best he could with the resources afforded him. I was impressed.
What’s more, I could see something of myself in Smith. Clerks was the kind of movie I would have made if I had decided to max out my credit card and roll the dice on a film career. Smith represented the road not taken. I couldn’t help but cheer him on.
Following the success of Clerks, Smith had access to all the resources he lacked the first time out. The result was 1995’s Mallrats. It was basically Clerks in color. Instead of being limited to a single storefront, Smith expanded to a mall. It wasn’t a big step up.
The critics pounced on Mallrats. Unfairly so, I thought at the time. Mallrats still makes me laugh. It may not have been the most ambitious sophmore film ever made. But as a Gen X-er who read comic books, it was in my sweet spot. Looking at the film today, I can see why critics were disappointed.
They naturally assumed that the limitations in Clerks were a result of Smith’s limited budget. But it turns out, many of Clerks‘ short-comings were also an indication of Smith’s limitations as a film-maker. Giving Smith more money to work with is a waste of resources. He’s just going to point a static camera at his friends and have them tell vulger jokes about super heroes and Star Wars.
Smith was very publicly stung by the reaction to Mallrats. His response was to make a slightly more personal and mature film in the form of 1997’s Chasing Amy. Chasing Amy isn’t high art. It’s still loaded with Smith’s trademark crude humor. But it’s a quantum leap up from the mall movie that used the “stink palm” as a plot point.
Chasing Amy gave me (and many critics) hope that Kevin Smith was growing as a film-maker. So when he decided to take on religion in the controversial 1999 film, Dogma, I was curious to see what Smith had to say. Turns out, he made a movie that includes a monster made of shit. Which was somewhat disappointing.
There are elements of Dogma that work. But the movie gets bogged down in too many tangents that go nowhere. The end result is a mess of a movie with occasional moments of brilliance.
In 2001, Smith announced that he was retiring his recurring characters of Jay and Silent Bob. It was time for him to mature as a film-maker. As a final farewell, he made Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. It’s about what you would expect from a film that centers on the two stoners who usually provide comic relief in the background of Smith’s movies. It is arguably too much of a good thing.
Smith’s next movie (the one that was supposed to represent Smith’s maturation) was 2004’s notorious flop Jersey Girl. Jersey Girl was released at a dark time in Ben Affleck’s career. His relationship with Jennifer Lopez was all over the tabloids where they were collectively known as Bennifer. The backlash was brutal. Both Jersey Girl and Gigli got caught up in its wake.
Although, in fairness, Jersey Girl is a pretty lousy movie. Once again, the limits of Smith’s talents are on full display. It turns out Kevin Smith is really good at crafting vulger dialogue loaded with pop culture references. And not a lot else. When he attempts to make a Hollywood movie, he makes the most banal and generic Hollywood movie imaginable.
Humiliated by his first attempt to make a traditional film, Smith retreated to familiar territory with Clerks 2. It’s pretty much exactly what you would expect a Clerks sequel to be like – except better than you probably expected. As a fan of the original, I enjoyed it. But I couldn’t help but be saddened by how little Smith had grown in more than a decade of film-making. Clerks 2 was barely more sophisticated than Mallrats.
Smith’s next film was 2008’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Amazingly, Smith pinned his Hollywood hopes on this movie to break out into the mainstream. I suppose the casting of Seth Rogan and Elizabeth Banks justified his raised expectations. But the movie is pure Kevin Smith. Even a fan like me couldn’t help asking, “Is this all you’ve got?”
I was entertained by Zack and Miri. But I had seen it all before. Not surprisingly, even with main stream stars, Zack and Miri performed the way all Kevin Smith movies always do. Smith has expressed his disappointment that it failed to cross over into the mainstream the way he had hoped.
In 2010, Smith tried his hand at making a traditional Hollywood movie once again with the buddy cop movie, Cop Out. And the results were once again disastrous. What was ostensibly supposed to be a satire of buddy cop movies turned out to be just another mediocre entry in the genre. The critics savaged the movie and it bombed at the box office.
Based on prior history, you might expect Smith to retreat from Cop Out with another Jay and Silent Bob movie. But it seems like Smith reached a breaking point. With nothing to lose, he did something kind of crazy.
Smith made headlines by announcing that he would auction off the rights to release his next film at Cannes. He then proceeded to sell the rights to himself for $1 and announce he was releasing Red State himself. It was a saavy PR move that rankled the Hollywood establishment. But it also gave Smith back some of his cred as an independent film-maker.
Red State promised to be a controversial movie. The title alone suggests the political divides that are tearing the country apart. Smith announced that he would tour the country speaking at showings of Red State.
It was a unique strategy. But one that made a lot of business sense for Smith. In the years since Clerks, Smith had stumbled as a film-maker. But he had become tremendously successful as a personality. In addition to being a talking head on late night TV shows, Smith’s speaking engagements were sell out shows. Pairing that with a controversial movie (and a low budget) was a recipe for success.
In all the talk about the unconventional release strategy, I think the movie itself got lost in the shuffle. Red State is a pretty good movie. You can still see Smith’s limits as a film-maker. For example, he loves hearing his characters talk. Red State is loaded with monologues that go on and on. Smith delivers all of his exposition in the form of a teacher lecturing her students (and the audience). It’s the laziest form of storytelling imaginable.
But in spite of the flaws, Red State is also a quantum leap forward for Smith. It’s a serious and sometimes thought-provoking movie. It deals with real world issues and in a way that at least attempts to be even handed. Smith essentially demonizes everyone. It’s a pretty depressing view on life, but it’s interesting all the same.
Unfortunately, Smith followed up whatever progress he made with the prolonged in-joke, Tusk. Ugh. I already reviewed this movie. You can read the review if you want, just do yourself a favor and skip the movie.
When Kevin Smith broke out on the film scene, I had great expectations for his career. In the years since, Smith has failed to live up to those expectations. As someone who once looked to Smith as a voice for my generation, I was disappointed if not betrayed.
But even if Smith failed to meet my unrealistically high expectations, I have to give it up to the guy. He may not be a great director. But Smith is living the dream. He’s a successful business man, a famous personality, he owns his own comic shop and even writes some (usually awful) comic books on the side. I’d love to be even half as successful as Kevin Smith, so I can’t hate on the guy too much.
Having said that, Comic Book Men is one of the worst things on TV and can’t be cancelled soon enough. I can’t believe enough people watch it to keep it on AMC.