Beware the filmmaker who looks through the camera's lens and sees only himself on the other side, blowing kisses. He's the fool who confuses “personal vision” with “jacking off,” and he'll try every time to convince you there's something meaningful and imaginative in the shallow and hackneyed. He is so absorbed in a universe of his own creation that he fails to see its flaws; the ground could be breaking apart, threatening to swallow everything whole, and he will stand back and insist it's a beautiful day. But how can he discern quality from crap when he can't see beyond his own self-satisfied smile (and those of his acolytes, who celebrate and enable his every misstep)?
Kevin Smith is one such filmmaker, and for the fetishists and fanboys who obsess over his DVDs, loaded with hours of outtakes and commentary, that's not really a problem. They immerse themselves in his so-called Askewniverse (so named after his production company, View Askew) and dare not pester the creator, no matter how decrepit the surroundings have become. They groove on the inside jokes — which is all Kevin Smith movies have become, especially now — and snicker at every fart and fag joke, no matter how tiresome and repetitive those jokes have grown over the past seven years, since the release of Smith's low-rent Clerks. What they've failed to notice, as evidenced by the giggles of approval during a recent preview of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back — allegedly Smith's final installment in his Red Bank, N.J., series — is that Smith long ago stopped being a filmmaker and instead turned into a franchise-maker, a peddler of wares that aren't built to last past tomorrow.
Smith has created such an insular universe that anyone unfamiliar with his previous films — Clerks, the unjustly maligned Mallrats, the half-excellent Chasing Amy, and the ambitious but ultimately infantile Dogma — and failed Clerks animated TV series will be utterly lost in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. You need a road map and a compass, and the movie isn't interested in providing either. Smith the filmmaker has become Smith the comic-book writer (aside from his own Jay and Silent Bob books for Oni Press, he wrote a celebrated run of Daredevil comics for Marvel and is currently penning the top-selling book at DC, Green Arrow), meaning he's obsessed with such things as continuity and cosmology at the expense of coherence and accessibility. You can't walk into Jay and Silent Bob — which revives nearly every character that's ever appeared in a Smith film (Jason Lee, for instance, shows up briefly as both Mallrat Brodie Bruce and comic-book “tracer” Banky Edwards from Chasing Amy) — and expect it to make sense without your having studied and absorbed the previous “issues.” The movie's so self-referential, it might as well come with footnotes as subtitles, or at least those editor's notes that show up in comic books whenever a character refers to something from an earlier story line (“See Action Comics No. 426, natch”). At $20 million, this is one long, expensive inside joke.
It's also a plodding infomercial, pushing everything from graphic novels to Smith's old DVDs; it all amounts to product placement for View Askew merch. Even the plot has been lifted, more or less, from one of Smith's old comics, in which dope-on-dope Jay (Jason Mewes, all stoner's grin) and Silent Bob (Smith, the poor man's Harpo Marx) discover there's a film being made about them, or at least their comic-book counterparts Bluntman and Chronic, to be played by American Pie's Jason Biggs and Dawson himself, James Van Der Beek. It's the duo's intention to go from Jersey to Hollywood to sabotage the film, unless they get paid by Banky or Miramax, which is funding Bluntman and Chronic (and Jay and Silent Bob, heh heh).
Once more, after Dogma, Smith's made a road movie: Jay and Silent Bob trek across the country, encounter their share of freaks and geeks (among them George Carlin as a hitchhiker who trades blow jobs for rides — “If it'll get me a couple hundred miles across country, I'll take a shot in the mouth,” he says during one of the movie's more embarrassing moments of self-debasement), hook up with four leather-clad jewel-thief bims (including Shannon Elizabeth), kidnap a monkey named Suzanne (see Mallrats, natch), cross paths with law enforcement officers played by Judd Nelson and Will Ferrell, and wind up in a light-saber duel with none other than Mark Hamill, whose entire career has been reduced to self-parody (see The Simpsons, natch). And they run into more stars than you'll find during a taping of celebrity Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?: Chris Rock, Carrie Fisher, Seann William Scott (Pie's Stifler), Jon Stewart, Jamie Kennedy, Shannen Doherty, Eliza Dushku, Diedrich Bader, Morris Day & the Time, Tracy Morgan, and a dozen or so comic-book writers and artists.
As criticism, the film is decidedly lightweight. Smith thinks that throwing around pop-culture references (Star Wars, Planet of the Apes, Daredevil, E.T., Purple Rain, Harry Knowles' Ain't It Cool News Web site, Scooby-Doo, and E! News are but a handful of allusions) is the same thing as commenting on them. But he forces such totems and trinkets to do all his work for him; they're just empty symbols for us to fill in, because Smith isn't willing to say what he really thinks (aside from the obvious, when Jay mutters, “I hate how fake Hollywood is”). The sharpest jab the movie pokes is at Hollywood's desire to eat its own tail, sequelizing itself to death. But even then, the commentary has all the impact of a feather duster. Jay and Silent Bob is a warmed-over rehashing of tired ideas and exhausted characters that exist solely because their creator couldn't be bothered to come up with anything better.
Smith fans squeal in recognition when they see Randal (Jeff Anderson) and Dante (Brian O'Halloran) from Clerks or Holden (Ben Affleck, who also shows up as himself in a turgid Good Will Hunting parody) and Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams) from Chasing Amy, but these people are just blank signposts signifying nothing. Smith has so fallen in love with his characters that he can no longer see how uninteresting they've become. No one ever evolves; they just appear, slide by on familiarity, then disappear like cool gusts on a hot and humid day. When Holden explains to Jay and Silent Bob that Miramax is making a film based on them, he's really just there to make jokes about the movie business. “After they made She's All That, everything went to hell,” Holden tells the duo about the studio, and it's such a nothing joke it might as well be in another language. And it's no funnier when Affleck, as Holden, keeps talking about the, ahem, real Ben Affleck: “He was the bomb in Phantoms,” he says, referring to yet another Miramax-funded flop. Just who was this movie made for? Fans of other bad movies or people who read Daily Variety?
The strange thing is, as much as the film's a valentine to Smith's fans, it's also something of a fuck-you; it's a criticism of obsessions as much as it's a paean to mania. “Who'd pay to see that?” Holden says of the Bluntman and Chronic movie — then he, Jay, and Silent Bob stare into the camera, not so much sharing a moment of humor with the audience as sneering at the audience. It's a joke that runs throughout the movie: Every time someone comments on how awful an idea it is to make a film entirely about the two sidekicks (Jay and Silent Bob began in Clerks as little more than annoyances smoking weed on the sidelines), the pair stare into the camera, as though acknowledging that they're in a bad movie absolves them of being in a bad movie. And who wants to pay to see a movie so bad the actors and writer/director feel the need to keep reminding us of how bad it is?