Sunday, November 9, 2008

Man on Film: Kevin Smith and the Path to Redemption

There was a time that I was a big Kevin Smith fan. As a high schooler, there was not an auteur I liked more. Sure, his films weren't visually arresting--hell, they weren't even visually interesting--but they were fun and at times he could reach into his limited bag of tricks and have you caring about his characters on a deeply personal level.

But as his films became more and more insular, they started to carry less and less weight. While Dogma marked a foray into a weightier realm narratively and technically speaking (read: tackles religion and has special effects and a crane shot), it was also a departure from the aspects of his two early films little films that worked*: believable stories with the right amount of heart.

*I think it's safe to say that whatever juvenile enjoyment can be derived from Mallrats does not outweigh the fact that the film does not work. I know it's a little revisionist of me to deride the film because there was a time that I loved that movie, but it really doesn't work. While attempting to hearken back to the John Hughes teen flicks of the 1980's, it lacks the heart that they had and is saddled with a shockingly leaden performance by that London tool--the one who wasn't in "Party of Five"--and erred to the comic book-y aspects of the 80's teen sex romps that did not work then and did not work in 1995. And while I am understanding of the fact that this was a young director given his first studio film which was then meddled with in the way that studios mess with films (i.e. Jim Jacks and ill-advised casting mandates), these problems do not except the film from criticism.

Where his debut feature Clerks excelled in telling an engaging, dialogue-driven personal story, Chasing Amy showed a growth as a writer and director that gave one hope. Then he embarked upon a rather disappointing ten-plus years. Dogma pretty good but certainly nothing special, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back was intermittently funny but mostly masturbatory. Both relied too heavily on the characters Jay and Silent Bob who are amusing the first time around but bring very little on the table upon repeat appearances. Of course in between the two features, Kevin Smith busted out that ill-fated "Clerks" cartoon, which wasn't given a fair shake by the network but was a trip back to the juvenile and added insult to the injury of becoming overly reliant upon Jay and Silent Bob. Then came Jersey Girl, which to this day I've never been able to finish, and this is coming from a very public supporter of one Ben Affleck, who is fucking awesome but even his presence was not enough to make me actually finish watching Smith's ode to fatherhood.

When I'd all but written him off, I happened across Clerks II. In spite of its obviously unfortunate inclusion of the characters Jay and Silent Bob, the movie struck me as not being horrible. In fact, at moments, it was very funny. Ownable? Probably not. But they show it fairly frequently on cable, and I've watched it more than once. Maybe it was the benefactor of low expectations or familiarity, but I was pleasantly surprised with the movie despite some of the absurdity that lied within.

Then came Zack and Miri Make a Porno, which finds Smith back in the territory that he explored to success in Chasing Amy. What works here, and I'll try to err away from spoiling anything, is that Kevin Smith has gone back to creating sexually complex situations for normal people.

More importantly, he's also enlisted a new cast. Frankly, Jason Lee and Ben Affleck are probably too big at this point to be doing this film, especially when factoring in their image. Seth Rogan is the current star of the raunch fest, and I mean that in the best way possible. But I don't think the change lies just in the casting. I think the simple act of working with different people and getting new perspectives from the fresh blood can't hurt in broadening a filmmaker's horizons. Enlisting the services of someone as talented a writer as Seth Rogan can't hurt in helping things be as crisp as possible.

Hopefully, Zack and Miri is the first in a series of films that redeem Kevin Smith in my eyes. I've got my fingers crossed.

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