[Editor’s Note: This post is presented in partnership with Time Warner Cable Movies On Demand in support of Indie Film Month. Today’s Throwback Thursday pick is Kevin Smith’s classic black and white comedy "Clerks," which you can watch On Demand.]
When "Clerks" made Kevin Smith one of the the most unexpected successes of the 90s, some hailed him as a new voice of a generation. That might have been overstating it a bit – he’s certainly a major Generation X figure but he’s never evolved as a filmmaker or storyteller. Still, Smith has never stopped making the films that he’s wanted to make, and he remains one of the most affable personalities in the film world. Below we take stock of Smith’s filmography. Agree/disagree with our ranking?
10. "Cop Out"
The idea of Kevin Smith as director-for-hire is so mind-boggling in its misconception that it’s hard to believe that it ever could have happened. Yet "Cop Out" exists, and never were Smith’s penchant for hangout rhythms and slacker bullshitting so mismatched with a project, which lacks the propulsion that makes the buddy cop movies Smith so loves work. "Cop Out" gets off to a bad start in a scene that lets Tracy Morgan riff to no end while interrogating a suspect exclusively with movie dialogue; it’s not an unfunny idea, but Smith and Morgan’s shared lack of discipline kill any potential laughs. Morgan and co-star Bruce Willis feel mismatched as well, seeming like they were thrown together five minutes ago rather than partners for nine years. Still, their comic scenes are better than the obligatory action scenes, where Smith seems not only out of his depth as a formalist but actively bored.
9. "Red State"
"Red State," to its credit, shows the writer-director more engaged and more ambitious, if not terribly successful. Smith rushes the set-up with a strained exposition for his Westboro Baptist stand-ins and a group of interchangeable horndogs for victims; it plays like a condensed version of Eli Roth’s "Hostel," which used its first half to play with audience sympathies and expectations more successfully. Smith gets two very good performances from John Goodman’s ATF agent and Michael Parks’s Fred Phelps analogue, but the speeches he gives the latter go on too long with no regard for pacing. And while Smith tries to block the action with a bit more care here than he did in "Cop Out," he just doesn’t have the chops. Oh well, points for trying, and maybe he’ll show improvement on the crazy-looking "Tusk."
8. "Jersey Girl"
"Jersey Girl" might still be Smiths’ most-hated film. Its sweetness is cloying, Liv Tyler’s character doesn’t seem to exist for any reason outside of cheering up/falling in love with Ben Affleck, and Affleck himself was in the midst of his infamously terrible run in the early 2000s. But Affleck really isn’t that bad in the film, even managing a few moving moments in spite of Smith’s purple dialogue and overdetermined sentimentality, and George Carlin gets a rare but welcome chance at a dramatic role as Affleck’s father. And while the film is embarrassingly sincere, it’s refreshing to see someone associated with Gen-X cynicism try sincerity on for a change even if it doesn’t work. "Jersey Girl" is a bad movie, but it’s not that bad of a movie.
In the late 90s, Smith went from slacker success to ambitious slacker success with the back-to-back hits "Chasing Amy" and "Dogma." The latter is simultaneously a satire of religion and an expression of faith, but Smith takes an awfully long time to get to a simple point ("have faith"). The film isn’t without its amusing scenes, particularly those that show of the considerable chemistry of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon (playing a pair of fallen angels) or George Carlin’s self-important cardinal, but Linda Fiorentino’s protagonist isn’t conceived as much more than a device for spiritual turnaround, and Smith spends way too much time over explaining the rules of the film’s world and Catholic dogma. And the film’s endless finale is a mess visually, the first film of Smith’s where his disregard for rhythm and composition seemed disastrous rather than merely unfortunate.
6. "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back"
Jay and Silent Bob were mostly amusing in small doses ("Clerks"), so giving them their own vehicle seems like a recipe for unbearable self-indulgence. "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" is certainly indulgent, but it’s less unbearable than only intermittently funny. Scenes where Smith lets Jason Mewes’ Jay chatter to no end are grating, particularly whenever the character’s homophobia shows through (though it’s less hateful and more Smith being a poor judge of how much is too much). But the film’s good-natured ribbing at Hollywood is often hilarious, with a scene of Gus Van Sant counting stacks of money on the set of "Good Will Hunting 2" being a highlight. Better to watch the best scenes on YouTube than sit through the whole thing.
5. "Chasing Amy"
Smith was hailed for newfound maturity upon ‘Chasing Amy’s’ release, balancing lowbrow gags with real emotion for the first time. "Chasing Amy" is actually only about half-successful: the film gets off to a great start when Ben Affleck’s protagonist deals with falling in love with a lesbian (Joey Lauren Adams), but the film stumbles a bit when Adams does fall for Affleck, which feels less like a look at fluid sexuality and more like Smith’s need to make the film about male difficulty with female promiscuity. He does handle that more deftly than he did in "Clerks," at least until Silent Bob’s movie-explaining monologue resolves Affleck’s inner-conflict for him. "Chasing Amy" features enough indelible moments (Adams and Jason Lee’s tribute to the scar scene in "Jaws," an unexpected embrace between Affleck and Lee), though, to make up for most of its shortcomings.
Upon its release, "Mallrats" was seen as a regression for Smith, a film that showed a talented writer-director giving in to his raunchiest instincts at the expense of his smarter ones. But "Mallrats" is hardly removed from the hangout vibe of "Clerks," which was pretty lowbrow in its own right. Really, the biggest drawback of the film is the half-assed plot that keeps getting in the way of Jason Lee and Jeremy London’s banter, which are at their funniest when the stakes are low (like a debate over whether a cookie stand is part of the food court). And while it has more than its fair share of amateurish performers (London, Claire Forlani), Lee is still more adept at delivering Smith’s hyperverbal dialogue than any other actor, whether he’s arguing that Superman and Lois Lane could never have sex or demanding that children learn to fear and respect escalators. Also, note to superhero movies, Smith still gets credit for the best Stan Lee cameo, long before it was cool.
3. "Clerks II"
After the failure of "Jersey Girl," Smith going back to the beginning for a 12-years-later sequel to "Clerks" looked like a sign of creative bankruptcy. And while the film is no great leap forward for Smith, it is a refreshingly mature film (for a movie with jokes about "interspecies erotica") and a film about (relative) maturity. The original film’s Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) are back, one trying to adjust to adulthood, the other still stuck in arrested adolescence and debating "Star Wars" (this time with the newer, younger "Lord of the Rings" geeks). It’s hard to buy the schlubby sad-sack Dante being fought over by two beautiful women (Jennifer Schwalbach, Rosario Dawson), but the rooftop dance to The Jackson 5’s "ABC" between O’Halloran and Dawson is still delightful, and Smith marries sentimentality to crudeness more successfully here than he did in "Jersey Girl" in a climactic jail scene, in which Dante and Randal’s friendship is defined beyond the latter constantly humiliating the former.
That said, few Smith moments are as funny as the scenes in which Randal humiliates Dante or messes with the customers in the first "Clerks." Some of the film’s facets, like its largely awkward acting and immature sexual politics, have aged poorly, but O’Halloran and Anderson’s verbal sparring matches have lost none of their humor. Smith’s disregard for traditional plotting is a boon here rather than a drawback, with the film’s episodic structure serving the humdrum nature of its heroes’ jobs and the bullshitting they do to deal with the tedium. There are dozens of wonderfully observed bits of annoying customers ("Do you have that one with that guy who was in that movie last year?") and behind-the-counter snark ("Well, this is the last time I rent here." "You’ll be missed"), but Smith also recognizes his leads’ unearned righteousness and feelings of inadequacy. And even Smith’s biggest detractors will probably give him Randal’s brilliant theory about the horrible consequences of blowing up the second Death Star in "Return of the Jedi."
1. "Zack and Miri Make a Porno"
It’s hard to see the rise of Judd Apatow without Kevin Smith, so it’s appropriate that he’d make a movie with Apatow regulars Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks. What’s so unexpected about "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" is that it’s also his warmest film, as well as one of his funniest. Smith will never be a Tashlin-esque stylist, but the film is Smith’s cleanest bit of storytelling and his most competent filmmaking. And Banks’ spirited Miri is the most fully-realized female character in any of Smith’s films, as bright and fast-talking as Rogen’s Zack. Smith’s made funnier movies, but he’s never managed a moment quite as affecting (yet still hilarious) as Zack and Miri’s first time with each other and their euphoric post-sex high set to Blondie’s "Dreaming." It’s a movie about finding yourself and love through creativity, half "When Harry Met Sally" with dirty jokes and half autobiographical film about working-class nobodies taking a chance at making their own movie.
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