There are very few filmmakers who can lay claim to being beholden to the cultural zeitgeist while simulatnaously standing as its declaimed antithesis. But such a fate has befallen writer/director Kevin Smith time and time again over the course of his twenty-plus years in the business. After being heralded as an icon of the burdgeoning independent film movement of the 1990s alongside others like Richard Linklater and Gus Van Sant, Smith quickly found himself threatening to topple such what was an assumed distinction of critical prestige.
Now, with the theatrical release of his latest film Yoga Hosers shortly making its way to theaters across the country and around the world, Smith is the center of some notoriety and attention yet again. But rather than focus solely upon his new movie’s relative merits and shortcomings, we here at Audiences Everywhere would rather take a moment to look back at Smith’s oeuvre in order to offer a comprehensive, thorough, and apologetic celebration of the things that the New Jersey native has gotten right (or at the very least earnestly attempted) on the big screen over the years.
Mae Day: The Crumbling of a Documentary (1992)
Co-directed with his former collaborator and producer Scott Mosier, Mae Day: The Crumbling of a Documentary was a botched film school attempt at examining the life of a local transsexual entertainer. Developed while Smith and Mosier were fellow students at the Vancouver Film School in Canada, the feature is notable only in so much as it lay the ground for future endeavors between the two would-be filmmakers. When the production fell apart behind the scenes, Smith and Mosier assembled a sampling of interviews with the crew on hand, juxtaposed against their own fictional thoughts and framing narration. Mae Day: The Crumbling of a Documentary, however brief and inconsequential, lay the groundwork for Smith’s breakthrough feature film debut in the following two years.
Before dropping out of the Vancouver Film School after only four months of what was meant to be an eight month program, Smith made a deal with Mosier that each would begin working on their own script for a feature film, and whoever finished first would enlist the other’s production services. As chance would have it, Smith finished his final draft of Clerks in short order, and Mosier became his go-to producer and creative partner for the following fourteen years. Concieved as a semi-autobiographical comedy based on his own experiences as a convenience store clerk in Leonardo, New Jersey, Clerks is a raw examination of twenty-something malaise that is still as timelessly felt as it was when it saw initial theatrical release. Subjective opinion may vary regarding the sophomoric nature and tone of Smith’s directorial debut, but its impact on the independent film movement is undeniable, making it something of a late-twentieth century American classic.
As a follow-up to his premiere Canne Film Festival darling, Mallrats came out a year later as a thematic and insular sequel. Meant to bridge the gap between Clerks as a follow-up to Smith’s initial big screen success, Mallrats suffers from being what was pitched as Clerks in a mall. Forced to include nudity in an ill-advised studio attempt at delivering a 1990s spiritual successor to the 1980s sex comedy Porky’s, Mallrats was slammed by critics upon initial release. Despite being a part of the larger View Askewniverse and the second part in Smith’s quintessential New Jersey Trilogy, Mallrats is a far more shallow and unpolished version of his first big hit. Nevertheless, Mallrats has since gone on to become something of cult-classic and fan favorite on subsequent home video releases, and stands as a frequently cited hallmark of Smith’s larger filmography.
Chasing Amy (1997)
Chasing Amy might be the most peculiar film of Smith’s entire career. Heralded as a return to form after the critical flop and box office bomb that greeted Mallrats, Chasing Amy provides the capper to the New Jersey Trilogy. Essentially serving as a juvenile fantasy drawing on a hetero-normative idea of what lesbians and the LGBT community stood for at the time, Chasing Amy gets by on brash sentimentality. And yet the film’s script is remarkable in its personally wrought melodrama. The premise that stands behind Chasing Amy is every bit as intellectually ridiculous as it was once upon a time, and has only grown more painfully shortsighted with age. But as a far as adolescent wet dreams go, it’s not a wholly bad film thanks to Smith’s emotional honesty and psychological vulnerability on display throughout the script.
Two years after tackling sexual identity, Smith took on the Roman Catholic Church in Dogma, which serves as perhaps his last feature to be welcomed warmly by the critical establishment. But like Chasing Amy, Smith’s religious satire is contextually scatterbrained. Mixing some odd pieces of general common sense regarding the intersection of church and state with a mildly irreverent skewering of Catholic theology, Dogma is a mixed bag. It might be a fan favorite for some, but its otherwise unremarkable take down of a subject as thematically rich as American fanaticism mars it from taking its place alongside the preceding three films that comprise the far richer New Jersey Trilogy.
Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001)
After coyly closing the book on the View Askewniverse film universe with Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back added a brand new epilogue featuring Smith’s iconic and eponymous bit players. Jay and Silent Bob are without a doubt the two greatest comic creations of Smith’s entire career, and may well go down as the only thing anyone remembers about Smith a couple hundred years from now. Unfortunately, their inclusion in a studio comedy that features the two drug dealers front and center falls apart when their own inherent lack of direction results in an aimless production overall. Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is a distracting entry in Smith’s larger body of work, though its harmless spurts of good will and well-timed deliveries from several recurring View Askewniverse characters make it worthwhile for diehard fans.
Jersey Girl (2004)
The first film to depart from Smith’s View Askewniverse cinematic universe, Jersey Girl unseats Mallrats as the true redheaded stepchild of the bunch. Ben Affleck stars as a widower forced to come to terms with the death of his beloved wife, when a cute young vide store clerk unexpectedly grabs his attention and affection. Even though Jersey Girl is complimented by co-starring performances from the likes of George Carlin and Liv Tyler, the production is a treacly mess that can’t seem to get out of its own way. Thematically clichéd and comically stunted, Jersey Girl is the only release in Smith’s entire catalogue that lacks the kind of charm that has made the director into an independent movie mogul in his own right.
Clerks II (2006)
After struggling with the theatrical release of Jersey Girl, Clerks II sees Smith making a solitary return to the success of his early days and first film. It never quiet reaches the semi-autobiographical heights of Clerks, and often leans too hard on several broadly sophomoric set pieces and character archetypes, but manages to give fans of the New Jersey Trilogy another reason to watch a Smith movie. With Clerks III still ostensibly on the way, Clerks II is an indispensable production in Smith’s filmography that caters to his most devoted viewers and fans with special attention paid to respecting the narrative continuity of the View Askewniverse.
Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)
Marking the last creative partnership between Smith and producer Scott Mosier, Zack and Miri Make a Porno sees Smith making his first and last attempt at an original script with mainstream ambition. Aping the style of Judd Apatow, and borrowing The 40-Year-Old Virgin co-stars Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks, Zack and Miri Make a Porno never quiet managed to reach the box office numbers to make it into the kind of phenomenon that Smith was hoping for. Regardless, Zack and Miri Make a Porno is among Smith’s better films, and is bolstered by the director’s outstanding filmmaking experience and maturity. Unfortunately, following the tepidly received release of Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Smith became a little too lethargic and unimaginative, and has yet to get back to the kind of comedy that he is so well known for.
Cop Out (2010)
Cop Out is the only feature length production that wasn’t written by Smith, and it shows. Starring former Live Free or Die Hard co-star and childhood idol Bruce Willis, Cop Out is a route, play-by-numbers buddy cop comedy with Tracy Morgan in a supporting role. None of the production feels very inspired, and a lot of that perhaps has something to do with the well documented behind the scenes tension held between Smith and Willis. It would be easy to dismiss Cop Out outright from the rest of Smith’s filmography, but it’s worth noting if only for its singularity in being the only movie that the director had no creative insight in creating.
Red State (2011)
Starring aging character actor Michael Parks in the lead role as a Fred Phelps stand-in religious zealot, Red State is the first horror movie produced by Smith. Followed by the wholly bizarre horror-comedy True North trilogy, Red State is another bold religious statement from the practicing Catholic filmmaker that levies its moral outrage against the homophobic ideology of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas. Thematically, Red State is a true turning point in Smith’s larger filmography that’s bolstered by chilling performances from Parks, Melissa Leo, and John Goodman. Intellectually restrained to the point of seeming subtlety, Red State manages to sidestep some of its obvious plotting in favor of a thoroughly unsettling socio-political thriller that has yet be replicated in his subsequent releases.
Spawned from a marijuana-infused conversation with former creative collaborator Scott Mosier on an old episode of Smith’s podcast SModcast, Tusk is a weird exploitation comedy unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. The movie lacks a lot of things when it comes to story and directorial vision, but makes up for its stoner-headed narrative with wildly imaginative set pieces and scenery brimming from an entirely original concept. Starring Parks yet again as a zany mad scientist, Tusk is like the inbred, love child of the Saw and The Human Centipede feature franchises. The movie is an alienating bit of business, but if you’re willing to open your mind up to its outlandish nature, there’s a lot of illicit, stupid fun to be had with Tusk.
Featured Image: Miramax Films