"The Internet is a communications tool used the world over, where people
can come together to bitch about movies and share pornography with one
Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is another mixed bag from writer-director Kevin Smith's "View Askewniverse." It's an inside joke that isn't very funny or inside. It cavorts like a live-action cartoon, and in its best moments succeeds. In its worst, it is a surprisingly middle-of-the-road affair. I should open by stating that I'm a fan of Smith's. I like all of his movies to varying degrees, and will always have an affection for his work. I say this because he has such a loyal fan base that anyone who criticizes his work is usually deemed someone who doesn't get it. I do get it, and am one of those fans for the most part. Despite mixed feelings on his films, you had to admire the fact that if he wasn't making them, no one else would. Whether Smith was making a contemplative movie like Chasing Amy or an audience-specific juvenile comedy like Mallrats, I felt like he was always making movies that were natural and uncompromising, box office be damned, in a day and age when that's an increasing rarity. I rooted for Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and participated in Smith's Internet request to buy a ticket both nights of opening weekend to ensure that he kept getting the chance to make personal pictures in a commercial system. After watching the convoluted and compromised final product, next time I think I'll skip on that second ticket, and leave it to the people in the vast middle ground that Smith seems to be playing to with this movie.
Facts of the Case
Jay and Silent Bob, the drug-dealing heroes of the View Askewniverse, have just found out they're going to be unfavorably portrayed in an upcoming movie adaptation of the comic books based on them. To save their reputation, they head from New Jersey to Hollywood to stop the production. Along the way, they meet up with a jewel thief named Justice (American Pie's Shannon Elizabeth) and her lipstick-lesbian crew. They acquire a monkey, and run into a series of wacky characters, including some familiar faces. Stopping the production is going to be harder than they think though, with Federal Wildlife Marshall Willenholly (Will Ferrell) and the feds on their trail.
If you don't know already, Jay and Silent Bob are a part of the young generation's lexicon, characters to know whether or not you have seen Smith's work. If you're of this generation, and "snootchie bootchies" is not in your vernacular, prepare to be the kind of unhip adult you were always afraid of. To make a Smith-like Star Wars analogy, Jay and Bob getting their own film is the comedy equivalent of giving a full feature to C-3PO and R2-D2. They're beloved and entertaining in their own right, and the problem was never using them for a whole feature. Rather, it was how to use them, and this is where the movie drops the ball. What would have worked, and what fans largely expected, was something a little less safe. Though I think Mallrats is ultimately more trouble than it's worth, I admire how fearless it is in avoiding pander. It's for a certain audience—and only that audience, giving the proceedings a charge whether or not you get the jokes. The people that love it likely love it more for it being tailored to them than anything else. Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back should have gone further than it does in that area, or not at all. Instead, Smith straddles the fence between trying to make a studio hit like American Pie and a "cult film" (as he presumptuously christens it on the commentary track, which seems like his rationalization for the film being outperformed by See Spot Run).
Who could blame him for wanting in on a style he helped to pioneer? He was ahead of his time in the arena of lowbrow humor, and there's no reason that he shouldn't have the cash and clout of gross-out peers the Farrelly brothers or the Wayans brothers. It's easy to see why the change in climate towards juvenile comedies would prompt Smith to think he could make one of those blockbusters in a walk, now that there's a proven audience. He was doing it before anyone, and had developed an unusually loyal fan base and two comedy icons in the process. Why wouldn't it work? He even got $20 million to make this film which, based on the tepid box office of the controversial Dogma, he probably wouldn't have gotten unless they believed Smith was going to expand his fan base considerably.
Therein lies the problem in the end with Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. It ends up as neither a valentine to fans, nor a stand-alone comedy classic. If Smith made the movie he envisioned when he posted breathless updates from the shoot on his View Askew website, it would be both, and he'd have a genuine comedy classic on his hands. Instead, the movie is like a bill that's been revised and watered down to please both Republicans and Democrats, while not accomplishing what it set out to do in the first place. Smith's concept was courageously myopic in its inception, but the $20 million wasn't a gift from the studio to make the best looking fan movie ever. They wanted a hit, and here Smith tries to give it to them while ostensibly making a movie for his hard-core fans. It's a delicate balance, and Smith seems too aware of this pressure and stumbles. The end result is that the film fails to find a consistent comedic voice, falling short in its bid to join the pantheon of classic road movie comedies.
Warning: Skip this paragraph to avoid deleted scene spoiler
The perfect example of this problem is found in the fifth deleted scene on Disc Two. Jay asks Holden (Ben Affleck) if he has tried to talk his girlfriend into a three way with his buddy again. This is a reference to the ambiguous ending of Chasing Amy, which left many viewers scratching their heads. Holden insults Jay back before turning to Silent Bob, or rather Kevin Smith, and adding, "But now that you mention it, thanks a lot. You could have made the moral of that story a little more clear."
Funny, self-deprecating, and impossible to understand unless you've seen Chasing Amy, and know that Silent Bob wrote it. This line is the kind of cut that seems designed to homogenize the movie, because it certainly was one of the funnier jokes if you got it. This kind of moment is sorely lacking if this is to feel like a cult movie, but it could be forgiven if it was forsaken for something else worthwhile. Instead, it makes plenty of room for Justice's "character development," which consists of a performance by Elizabeth that has as much subtlety and complexity as the performance her boobs gave in American Pie.
While this flaw in approach unfortunately taints the whole movie, it has some very funny moments. Smith should perhaps be most recognized for his ability to pick a good cast, and this film has his best yet (even if they seem underused, a problem with most ensemble films). Among his shrewdest recruits were Saturday Night Live stars Will Ferrell (who I think is one of the funniest people ever) and Tracy Morgan (who, like costar and SNL alum Chris Rock, seems to be a late bloomer who's just hitting his stride). The two are not given enough screen time, but I think as the years wear on Smith's prescience will be recognized for including these unique comic voices. Not far behind is Jason Lee, with his grin that says "I might have a water balloon behind my back." He's in fine form here, returning to both the role of Banky from Chasing Amy and Brodie from Mallrats. Lee has always had a Chevy Chase-like quality; they both smile with their nostrils. His screen time is very amusing, and he succeeds in trying earnestly to get into the mode of the original character.
Affleck stumbles in this area, as both Holden and Chucky from Good Will Hunting. He pushes way too hard on the fact that he's participating in a comedy. I smiled when they played Dave Pirner's wonderful Chasing Amy music as Holden greets Jay and Bob, but was let down to see it was Holden in name only. I can handle him losing the whiskers, though in a world where Banky and Brodie are still wearing the same clothes as they were in the previous films, it's a little odd to see Holden's only distinguishing mark absent. The real issue is that Affleck is having more fun than the audience, favoring to mock his revisit to Holden rather than embrace it. While his out-of-character take on the line "Affleck was the bomb in Phantoms, yo" was too funny to leave out, most of his breaks just seem born of Affleck's frustration that in the View Askewniverse, he's largely been the straight man. Now that he's the big star returning a favor, he's going to do whatever he wants. It felt like they were visiting Ben Affleck's house, not Holden's. For fans of Holden, this is a bummer. The same goes for his return as Chucky. Affleck does a pointlessly broad take on the character, contrasted with Matt Damon's serious (and seriously funny) channeling of Will Hunting. As Affleck hams (a problem for him, as you'll see in the special features section), Damon's realistic angst is what makes the scene funny. He earns a laugh for delivering the line "It's hunting season!" with as much angst as if he were saying "Don't f*** with me Sean!" The difference matters. Sure, this is an irreverent comedy, but why revisit these characters in name if not in spirit? I thought I was being too hard on Affleck until I saw Damon and Lee, who give two of the only grounded performances, and in turn raise the comedy bar to a level that Affleck and most of the film's return players fall short of.
Jason Mewes shines here when he's allowed. People who say the Jay character can't carry a picture don't get him, because while he seems softened during moments of this movie, he's still as much of a charge to watch as he was in Clerks. The softening is frustrating, as Jay spins some uncomfortable Cameron Crowe-esque lines of sap to Justice, and vice versa, as if to remind us that the guy who wrote this movie wrote the car scene in Chasing Amy. Personally, I think absolutely no growth or change for Jay would have been funnier and closer to who the audience has come to understand Jay to be, but I suppose Smith knows best. It still feels more like a pander than an artistic decision, and it takes some of the sting out of Mewes antics. Still, his comic timing is underrated, and he makes it clear here more than ever that he's not just acting like himself and getting paid for it. He takes the time to give some mediocre lines fantastic readings, and he saves much of the movie.
To discuss more of the film would ruin it. Surprises along the way are the bulk of the fun, and since I didn't enjoy the film as much on repeat viewing, it seems the more left unsaid the better.
The amount of special features on Disc Two is staggering, and Smith deserves some kind of award for the take-all-I-got approach he gives to his releases. It seems that everything related to the production is found here, and it's a treat to sift through if only for its depth. There are more than 40 deleted scenes, and though some are about 1/10 the length of Smith's wordy intros, most are fun to watch and boast full production quality. Particularly good is the rally between Ferrell and Jon Stewart about the finer points of an organization called the C. L. I. T. There's also a hilarious gag reel that Smith assembled for comic book conventions last year, where some of the disc's best moments can be found. Other entertaining features include four shorts, the best of which is appropriately titled The Genius of Will Ferrell, and displays Ferrell's improvisation ability. Affleck the Ham shows Affleck's improv disability, but it's still fun to watch in this context.
The commentary track was a letdown after the excellent commentaries found on the prior DVD releases. Only Smith, Mewes, and producer Scott Mosier take part, and it's a mishmash of production anecdotes and dropped threads. The trio are commentary veterans, but are out of the groove here without the energy of Affleck or Lee to bounce off of. Though they can't help who showed up, the presence of Smith himself is what's occasionally grating here. His enthusiasm is endearing, and he deserves a lot of credit for putting himself out there enough to be judged by anyone with a DVD player. But it's annoying when he "jokes" about plugging his web site and store, feeling the need to give the full store and site addresses every time. It's a joke-plug hybrid with far too little joke. It's also distracting on such a sparse track that Smith takes so much time to ride Mewes. Although Smith clearly loves the little foulmouth, he seems to still act as though they're of different castes, and it becomes a distraction on this commentary. Since Mewes' electric presence in Clerks is the reason most people saw that movie, it seems odd that he constantly is being treated like he's Gilligan to Smith's Skipper, just because Smith has all the money. It's less like two great buddies ribbing, and more like one insecure guy jibing another one who's too passive and good-natured to strike back.
Smith can't remember the name of one of the cameo players, so he asks Mewes. Mewes doesn't know the actor's name, but he astutely remembers the name of the character the actor, Marc Blucas, played on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This would seem to save a little face for the guys by displaying one of them at least knew of his work. However, with an incredulity he doesn't show towards his own failure to remember, he scolds Mewes for referring to the actor by the name of his character. Apparently, a big faux pas. Yet when Judd Nelson appears onscreen, Smith doesn't hesitate to refer to him as John Bender, Nelson's breakout character from The Breakfast Club almost 20 years ago. So Marc Blucas is going to mind being referred to as Riley Finn when the director forgets his real name, but Judd Nelson won't mind being acknowledged as essentially a one-hit wonder? This seems especially unlikely since Nelson's one of the only cameo players not to do any lampooning of his image or past work in the film. But in the View Askewniverse, apparently the answer is yes. The director also sounds like he's rolling his eyes when he instructs Mewes repeatedly to talk directly into the mic, interrupting Mewes' thought and leaving listeners in the lurch. Mewes' audio is fine of course, because almost all human beings understand the principles of basic voice projection. Later Mewes mentions that there's a scene coming up with "Wes," and Smith lambastes him for spoiling the surprise. He gets more excited griping about this than talking about the movie, forgetting that DVD audiences have already seen the movie if they're watching the commentary. Even if they haven't, there's more than one person in the world named Wes, and Mewes hardly ruins the surprise. The contradiction is highlighted in the deleted scenes section, where Smith has no qualms with ruining the surprise of almost every scene by explaining at length what's funny about it in the intro, to the point where I had to skip to the scene and watch the intros after. These may seem like small quibbles, and I suppose they are, but they stick out just the same on this disc in a way they didn't on the Dogma DVD.
The disc also boasts a funny behind-the-scenes Featurette, storyboards, music videos, and some pointless but somewhat interesting stuff about Morris Day and the Time. The Comedy Central Reel Comedy special is solid too, and the cast is refreshingly sarcastic about their participation.
The movie looks great on this release, with clear images and great colors. There's no bleed, though edge enhancement is more apparent on Disc Two. The menus are refreshingly not animated, as Smith hates animated menus, but it's curiously absent of color too (strange for such a colorful movie). It's presented in 2.35:1, and Smith makes his best use yet of the widescreen possibilities. His compositions hardly call attention to themselves, but Smith is clearly gaining a new understanding of his craft. If he brings this polish to his current project Jersey Girl, and avoids making a clunker like John Hughes' She's Having A Baby, Smith could successfully make the transition into a mature filmmaker in a way very few have.
The 5.1 audio mix is surprisingly dense, with a great score by Jim Venable and lots of sound effects. The movie has a good soundtrack, and it all combines to make for a sonic movie that's almost more entertaining than the one onscreen. Also be sure to read the funny credits, and stick around for a special surprise at the end.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As for outright mistakes in this movie, one of them was Shannon Elizabeth. The logic must have been to get the chick most desired by the film's core demographic, a cue taken from Mike Myers' shrewd casting of Elizabeth Hurley for Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery, Heather Graham for The Spy Who Shagged Me, and now Beyonce Knowles for the untitled third flick. Half the time it seems Elizabeth is going to Meg Ryan camp for cuteness, and the other half she's trying too hard to say "I can do wacky comedy too!" Unfortunately, she confuses comedy with being broad, and she is no Meg Ryan. Her loud reaction to getting smacked in the head by one of her crew is so grating that the audience I saw it with audibly winced, and her spit-take when she sees Jay and Bob on TV is so exaggerated and self aware that it's distracting. This performance feels more like something for her audition reel, and it's the one outright bad call of the movie. In a funny way, it completes the circle began with another Shannen, Doherty, who returns for a cameo here and is remembered for using Mallrats more as an excuse to practice then to inhabit Smith's quirky world. I couldn't help but think that the Jay I have come to know and love would have been all about fellow jewel thief Eliza Dushku's brash and sexy Sissy.
Also, the movie recalls Pee-Wee's Big Adventure a little too much, consciously or subconsciously. There's déjà vu all over the place, including the rendezvous with the criminal element on the road, a Pee-Wee-like bike getaway, a scene where the heroes set hordes of animals free, and a direct riff on Pee-Wee's Warner Bros. backlot romp. The movie seems aware of the similarity, but still too often it feels like what's on screen has been seen before (the tired E.T. joke killed the fun of the mock Affleck movie poster in the lot).
[Editor's Note: As an avowed Tim Burton fan, I feel obliged to point out that Kevin Smith still harbors some sour grapes over Burton rejecting Smith's script (a very terrible script, I might add) for the long in the works fifth Superman film. I would not be surprised if the similarities to Burton's film are intentional and meant as an insult to the more popular and successful director.]
Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back isn't a bad movie, and it's a great DVD. It's a comfortable, fun world, like hanging out with that old school friend from junior high once you were a little older, and being delighted to learn he was still asking you to pull his finger. Unfortunately, after a little bit you start wondering if he's pulling the old antics for him or for you. Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back ultimately never decides between wanting to be a movie for Smith's fans, or an invitation to the uninitiated. However, this deluxe DVD serves to bridge the gap just enough to finally connect the five points in the View Askewniverse.
Despite the inconsistencies in the defendant's case, the court rules in favor of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.
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