I remember when Clerks was announced. It was a Sundance favorite and trailered along with Pulp Fiction. Having had some counter experience, and being a Star Wars nerd, Clerks looked like sweet elixir. And I went to see it opening weekend (in a double feature with Stargate), and was in the Kevin Smith. Revisiting his films Clerks, Chasing Amy and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back on Blu-ray in the Kevin Smith collection is a chance to wrestle with what makes Kevin Smith great and somewhat terrible. My review after the jump.
Clerks is one of those films that – at the time – you wanted to root for. It was a small film from a filmmaker who scrapped together his pocket change and made a film, and the history of films like that which received a theatrical release were always encouraging. Spike Lee, Richard Linklater, etc. Now, now that Kevin has milked this for all it was worth, and Smith’s direction has not gotten that much better, it’s not as easy to forgive its sins. But funny is funny.
Dante (Jeff O’Halloran) gets called in to work at the Quick Stop Groceries on his day off. Supposedly he’s filling in for the morning, but gets sucked into spending the day there. Next door Randal (Jeff Anderson) works at the video store. Dante is passive aggressive with his clientele, Randal is aggressive-aggressive. Outside there’s a pair of drug dealers in Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith). Dante’s got a girlfriend named Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti) who makes him lasagna and wants to be near him, but Dante’s been pining for his high school girlfriend Caitlin Bree (Lisa Spoonhauer), who is supposedly engaged to an Asian Design Major, even though she and Dante have been talking again.
Set in one location with camera work that could be mistake for a security camera, cinematically, there’s not much going on in the film, but in terms of comic flair, Smith has it in spades. There’s some good set-up/pay-offs, and funny jokes throughout. And if one can no longer forgive some of the film’s terrible line readings and less than amateur performances by much of the cast, Smith has something of an ear for nerd talk and people bullshitting that isn’t as honed as Quentin Tarantino’s, but is still rather impressive. As much as I’d like to bag the film for being shittily made (and it is, when you compare to Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It or Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise, those guys have a visual sense, and get much better performances out of their leads), now the film plays like a period piece as it was one of those Miramax films that came along, and may have been rough around the edges but have heart. Though not even close to being Kevin Smith’s best work, it definitely is amusing. And it’s probably the most successful film of such poor quality. You can hear the line readings, and see people reading off their dialog. If you can develop some affection for that it goes a long way, but the film has that endearing quality of a three legged dog. As long as you don’t expect it to run fast, it’s charming.
In 2004, for the 10th anniversary a three-disc DVD set came out. For the Blu-ray edition, all of that material is gathered here, along with the documentary on the making of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, which is not included with that film because it was such an early Blu-ray release. Included is the film in widescreen (1.85:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 surround. Of course this track is only of so much use with a film like this, but it’s the thought that counts. And for a no-budget production, the film looks as good as it’s ever going to get. Extras include the original 91 minute cut with a trivia track, and the laserdisc commentary with Walt Flanagan, Jason Mewes, Smith, producer Scott Mosier, O’Halloran, and Vincent Pereira, and Film Threat’s Malcolm Ingram. This track has been around since the film hit laserdisc. There’s also the original extended cut of the film (105 min.) with the robbery ending. This comes with an introduction by Smith and Mosier (9 min.), and a PIP video commentary by Anderson, Mewes, O’Halloran, Mosier and Smith.
“Oh What a Lovely Tea Party” (87 min.) is the making of Jay and Silent Bob, and it comes with an introduction by Kevin Smith (3 min.) – the only new supplement for this disc – and it gets most of the cast of that film to talk about the making of it. This probably should have been on the J&SBSB disc, but – as I said – that was done at the beginning of the Blu-ray revolution, and that disc has no main menu, and only the film’s commentary as a supplement. Since a lot of people are going to buy the three disc collection, it’s all here, I guess. There’s a lost scene (10 min.) with introduction by Smith and Mosier for what should have happened in the funeral sequence of the movie. This can also be watched as part of the feature, though the animation is in color (of course) and is 1.33:1. There’s a short film with Randal and Dante that Smith did for The Tonight Show called “The Flying Car” (8 min.) that comes with a Smith intro, and then MTV spots with Jay and Silent Bob and Matt Damon (with an intro by Mosier and Smith, 18 min.), then there’s the film’s theatrical trailer and the Soul Asylum music video for the movie. Then there’s three pieces on the restoration, with Producer Scott Mosier (5 min.), DP Dave Klein (1 min.) and an intro by Smith (7 min.), all done for the tenth anniversary edition, while there are also four audition tapes with intro by Smith and Mosier (15 min.). Think I’m done, not even close. There’s a feature length doc on the film called “Snowball Effect” (90 min.) which goes into Smith’s high school years, and how the film got found by John Pierson and Miramax. “Mae Day” is Kevin Smith’s student film (12 min.), and 35 minutes of additional interviews from “Snowball Effect” are also included. If that wasn’t enough, there’s a 10th anniversary Q&A (42 min.) with Smith, Mewes, Anderson, O’Halloran, Mosier and Ghigliotti.
Some felt, at least in the critical community, that Smith ran aground with Mallrats. I’ve always disagreed with that reading. It was a small teen comedy that came about five years too early, and was probably a little too R rated for the core audience. Smith took the failure in no stride at all. It hurt him a great deal, though the film eventually found an audience with home video. Chasing Amy was Smith soul searching, whilst also dealing with dating actress Joey Lauren Adams. Smith’s sexual insecurities may have been a leitmotif in Clerks, but in Chasing Amy that joke about 37 dicks is much of what the film is about.
Ben Affleck stars as Holden McNeil, who along with Banky Edwards (Jason Lee) has created Bluntman and Chronic, which MTV wants to pick up for a network show. They’re friends with Hooper X (Dwight Ewell), who introduces them to Alyssa Jones (Adams). Holden is smitten, but it turns out that Alyssa’s a lesbian. This makes him bashful, but the two become friends until Holden can’t take it anymore, which leads to a heartfelt proposal, but – as Alyssa knows – this is a life changing event for her, and not so much for him. But complications ensue when Holden’s assumption about Alyssa having never slept with a guy before is proved demonstrably false.
There are two texts going on in Chasing Amy, one the narrative of the film, and the second Smith’s commentary on himself. Holden and Banky are obvious surrogates, with Smith showing some attraction/disgust with the scene he would make his own (the Con circuit). Holden is the artist who wants to be more than dick and fart jokes, and when Silent Bob finally talks at great length he basically is giving himself advice. The film traffics in a meta commentary on Smith’s career up to that point, and who he is as a person.
This isn’t a bad thing, by any stretch, and what Smith gets right about this film he gets so right. The scene where Alyssa’s friends call her on dating a man is easily one of the best things he’s ever staged or written, as the weight of someone being ostracized from their community becomes clear. There may be one earnest speech too many, but you can’t say it isn’t heartfelt, and Jason Lee is great comic relief in the first half. Unfortunately, the film has some third act problems as Smith has his character make a bonehead play. I can’t say it’s out of character all that much to destroy the narrative, but it’s a solution to a writer’s problem. It works, but it’s a minor caveat to an otherwise strong film, that is fairly well directed and strongly acted throughout. Joey Lauren Adams gives a great performance and though people hate her voice, it’s a fully lived in performance. Time has shown not everyone can deliver Smith’s dialog, but she and Affleck and Lee all play like their dialog was written for them (it was, true that). This is the high point of Smith’s career.
The Blu-ray comes in widescreen (1.85:1) and in 5.1 DTS-HD. Excellent transfer all around, this disc is solid. Extras include a Smodcast commentary by Smith and Mosier done for the internet, though not the track from the Criterion DVD, which began (infamously) with Smith saying (at the end of the laserdisc era) “fuck DVD.” That sentiment has new meaning now. There’s a feature length making of called “Tracing Amy” (81 min.) which covers the production, why it was made, and the fallout when Smith and Mosier agreed to make Dogma sans Joey Lauren Adams and DP Dave Klein (which in some ways ended Adams and Smith’s relationship). And here everyone involved gets their moment to talk about the film. “Was it Something I Said” reunites Adams and Smith to talk about the film (18 min.), and there’s also a ten years later Q&A with Affleck, Mewes, Lee, Dwight Ewell, Adams, and Scott Mosier (28 min.) Also included are ten deleted scenes (25 min.), and outtakes (5 min.), rounding out with the theatrical trailer.
After Chasing Amy, Kevin Smith tried to do something bigger, something that challenged him and his talents. A large scale epic about religion. Dogma. Though the film was not a failure, it showed his limitations, as the film showcases both Alan Rickman and Chris Rock’s worst performances. It was the moment that suggested Smith had a very real ceiling and either he couldn’t or wouldn’t break through it. If Dogma tried too hard, then Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back was Smith coasting, and the very things he is critical of Mallrats for are more than apparent here.
The main characters are Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith), who have a restraining order put against them by Dante (O’Halloran) and Randal (Anderson) at the Quick Stop. But when they meet up with Brodie (Lee) from Mallrats, they’re told that Bluntman and Chronic is being turned into a feature film. They bug Holden (Affleck) about it, but he says he sold all the rights to Banky (Lee). And so they head off to Los Angeles to stop the movie from being made as the internet insults their comic.
On the road they meet a group of hot chicks (Ali Larter, Smith’s wife Jennifer Schwallbach, Eliza Dushku) with Justice (Shannon Elizabeth) striking an attraction for Jay. The women are actually diamond thieves, but Jay and Silent Bob get suckered into breaking into an animal lab where they steal Suzanne the monkey (reference to Mallrats and its ending) and end up being pursued by Federal Wildlife Marshall Willenholly (Will Ferrell), who is just as dumb as they are. This leads to a lot of bad slapstick. Mewes is given the majority of the dialog as Smith tries to keep his character as quiet as possible.
Once in Hollywood there are a number of parodies of Miramax, with Scream 4 and Good Will Hunting 2 being filmed. Here Smith shows zero teeth, and though it’s funny to see Damon and Affleck revive their roles from Good Will Hunting, the film they are making is unbelievable in the scheme of things. It’s not really satire at that point, it’s just a goof. It is fair to say that both are good sports, but nothing’s at stake besides making fun of their misfires in the interim (though as they reference all their misses, it’s mostly a roll call), but Affleck gets more points for copping to killing hookers.
Smith is at his best when his films are personal, usually, but Clerks 2 is one of his worst films, if only because he doesn’t seem to know what to do, how to move the ball forward. He knows he has an audience that responds to the dick and fart jokes, but he also seems somewhat contemptuous of that. J&SBSB was a wallow. And though jokes hit here and there, it’s not much of a movie.
The Blu-ray is in widescreen (2.35:1) and in 5.1 PCM or a downmixed 5.1 Dolby Surround track. Extras are limited to a commentary by Smith Mewes and Mosier from the DVD.