Since his breakthrough comedy Clerks, Kevin Smith has secured his position as one of Indie cinema’s leading directors. His films are defined by his own brand of bittersweet comedy with iconic slacker characters and an ability to walk a perfect line between profane gross out comedy with genuinely affecting drama. That’s depending on who you ask of course, as for some Smith’s New Jersey flavoured dramedies have often been criticized as mawkish, immature and self indulgent.
Whatever your stance on Smith, his influence on independent cinema since the early ’90s has been huge, with many up-and-coming young filmmakers owing a debt of gratitude to Smith. His controversially outspoken persona has also made him one of cinema’s most engagingly entertaining voices – as witnessed by his hugely successful one-man tours. Recently his public spats with critics have caused much debate, while Smith himself has also suggested that he’ll soon retire from filmmaking. Whatever the future holds for Smith, with exactly 10 films currently under his belt, how do they rank from best to worst ?
Like many directors, it’s Smith’s breakthrough independent feature which remains his crowning achievement. Made on a shoestring budget – which Smith claims was mostly taken from maxed out credit cards – Clerks is the definition of an underground hit. Following a day in the life of Dante and Randal, two slacking dime store clerks, Clerks is a pitch perfect comedy which is relatable to anyone whose ever worked in a shop (milk maids and perfect egg obsessives do indeed exist) or simply anyone whose ever been stuck wondering where their life is going, which I’m pretty sure is most of us.
Clerks also defined many of Smith’s directorial trademarks including the shockingly profane dialogue (“My girlfriend sucked 37 dicks”…. “In a row?”) the pop culture references (including the first of many for Star Wars and Jaws) and the resulting ‘View Askewniverse’ of characters including Jay and Silent Bob and frequent use of New Jersey locations. While later movies like Chasing Amy saw him evolving his skills as a filmmaker, his gritty low budget debut remains a defining movie of both his career and the ‘90s.
Finest Moment: Jay’s Russian cousin busts out some impromptu metal- “Would you like some making fuck, BERZERKA !”
Likely to be a divisive entry in the No.2 spot, Mallrats – despite Smith’s own negative view towards the film – is one of his most purely enjoyable and funniest films. It’s stuffed full of quotable lines and one of his very best characters with Brodie, portrayed by Jason Lee in a career defining peformance. As a follow up to Clerks, it’s easy to see why Mallrats splits many fans of Smith’s work and the director himself. It’s a light-hearted big budget comedy backed by Universal and therefore lacks some of the bite and freedom of his debut.
So while Mallrats isn’t as sharp or as resonate as Clerks, it’s effortlessly enjoyable, combining a similar story of two slackers – T.S Quint and Brodie – once again interspersed with Jay and Silent Bob and interweaving characters like Ben Affleck’s sleazy Shannon and Joey Lauren Adams as Gwen. Mallrats is also notable for giving Marvel Studios a run for their money, with what remains one of the finest Stan Lee cameos ever to feature in a movie. Its other legacy ? It gave hundreds of film geeks the inspiration to propose on the Universal Studios Jaws ride in Florida, something which is now sadly impossible.
Finest Moment: Brodie teaches T.S Quint the art of ‘Stinkpalming’ – “Scrub all you want, it’ll stick around for at least two days. How does he explain it to his colleagues and family? They’ll think he doesn’t know how to wipe his ass properly”.
Chasing Amy (1997)
Considered by many fans – including Quentin Tarantino – to be his best film, Chasing Amy was seen at the time to be Smith’s most mature and balanced work, managing to weave a genuinely engaging and emotionally affecting story with his usual brand of crude but often witty humour. Ben Affleck stars in one of his best roles as Holden McNeil, a comic book artist who falls deeply in love with a young woman named Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams) who is perfect in every little single way, except for one little hitch, she’s a lesbian.
While Smith does throw in a fair share of crude gags around the subject – including a brilliantly in depth discussion on oral sex techniques – his script for Chasing Amy is surprisingly touching in places, as well as hilariously sharp and heartfelt. It probably helps that it’s damn funny as well, with Jason Lee once again providing a memorably amusing supporting role as Banky, and Jay and Silent Bob given some of their most finest scenes including a surprise monologue from the not-so-silent Bob.
Finest Moment: Banky gives Holden a valuable lesson about Santa Claus, the Easter bunny and lesbians – “The other three are figments of your fucking imagination!”
Clerks II (2006)
When it was first announced that Smith would be returning to the Quick Stop to once again take a look at the lives of Dante and Randal, an uneasy mix of excitement and trepidation could be felt from fans. Yet after the disappointing misfire of Jersey Girl, it makes perfect sense that Smith decided to go back to the film which launched his career, and to not only embrace the View Askewniverse which he had built up throughout his films, but to also seemingly give it a fitting conclusion.
Thankfully, despite the occasional objectionable moment, Clerks II is a sequel to a classic movie which not only compliments the original but lovingly develops its characters and story in a similar way to the highly underrated Psycho II. It doesn’t all work well – a cheesy dance sequence is likely to cause many to balk – while attempts to outdo the crude humour of the original with inter-species erotica and debates over the etiquette of ass to mouth feel a little too eager to shock, but Clerks II is a very funny and worthy sequel.
Finest Moment: An astounding jail cell sequence which leads into a surprisingly mature conclusion, bringing everything full circle in glorious Black & White.
With a hugely talented cast including Alan Rickman, Linda Fiorentino and Matt Damon, it’d been easy for Dogma to have become a big budget mess, yet the controversial theological comedy caries all of the independent spirit of Smith’s previous work and one of his most accomplished and complex narratives. Seriously, compared to some of the low-key plotlines of Smith’s other films, Dogma seems in a world of it’s own. There’s fallen angels, abortion clinics and even Alanis Morissette in a role which shouldn’t be spoiled.
Despite the fact that the religious satire and questions of faith make the film seem more complex than it actually is, at heart it’s still very much in the same vein as Smith’s other View Askewniverse comedies, complete with Jay and Silent Bob as two of the most foul mouthed prophets ever seen on film. Smith also handles the subject matter more respectfully than you might imagine, yet it was still the subject of catholic controversy and protest, with the help of Kevin Smith himself.
Finest Moment: Quite clearly, the Buddy Christ.
Cop Out (2010)
You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who actually watched Cop Out let alone enjoyed it, which is why it’s become infamous less for being a stinker and more for Smith’s rant against anyone who didn‘t enjoy his buddy comedy flop. Besides the fact that Bruce Willis spends the entire film on autopilot and Tracy Morgan manically overacts every scene as if there‘s a gun to his head, Cop Out lumbers it’s way through an almost non-existent plot involving a stolen baseball card.
Following the critical mauling the film received, Smith took to Twitter to lash out at critics and compared it to bullying a retarded kid as the film “strived for nothing more than laughs” and wasn’t called “Schindler’s Cop Out”. The controversies didn’t end there, as long after the stench of Cop Out had cleared the air, Smith revealed the stressful relationship between him and Willis. In a Podcast interview he conceded that the production was “f*ckin’ soul crushing”.
Worst Moment: As Tracy Morgan hilariously spoofs a famous scene from Die Hard, Bruce looks on and feigns confusion. Ha, Willis, you cheeky prankster ….. You starred in Die Hard !
Jersey Girl (2004)
Jersey Girl was a bold attempt by Smith to make a film which was thematically different to his previous work – and the first to take place outside of the View Askewniverse – as well as a film which would allow him to mature as a filmmaker. Rather than the usual slacker orientated comedy of his earlier work, Jersey Girl sees Ben Affleck’s Ollie having to restructure his entire life, after his wife dies during childbirth, leaving him having to take on the daunting task of caring for his new daughter by himself.
As a lightweight life affirming comedy you could certainly do a lot worse, but Jersey Girl was perhaps doomed from the start through mere association with box office bomb Gigli – despite the fact that Jenifer Lopez’ appearance in Jersey Girl is little more than a cameo. Add to that the fact that Jersey Girl carries little of what Smith’s fans actually love about his movies, it’s hardly surprising that Jersey Girl was little more than a bold experiment, and if nothing else, one of Smith’s most loving tributes to the state which defines much of his work.
Worst Moment: Not actually part of the film, but this hideously photoshopped DVD sleeve as seen partly above. There’s the strange waxwork of Jason Biggs, an oddly squished George Carlin and Kevin Smith himself peeking over the corner to remind us that yes, he did make this.
Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001)
The problem with Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is one which is apparent long before you even begin to watch the movie. Jay and Silent Bob, as brilliantly funny creations as they undoubtedly are, only work well when used sparingly. When given an entire film to stretch out their stoner comedy to breaking point it’s not long before the crude gags and endless movie in-jokes become tiresome.
There’s some enjoyment to be had with the multiple cameos, including Smith’s own characters like quick stop employees Dante and Randal – long before Clerks II came to be – as well as a in-joke stuffed film studio finale full of appearances from actors and directors including Wes Craven, Matt Damon and Gus Van Sant – cashing a cheque on the set of Good Will Hunting 2 – but even then it simply reminds me a little bit of the superior ending to Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.
Worst Moment: A lame Charlies Angels spoof diamond heist sequence which ends with Ali Larter triggering a laser security beam by farting. That’s pretty much the level of humour you can expect throughout.
Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)
Zack and Miri Make a Porno marked the second film to not be set within his View Askewniverse and the very first to be boldly set outside of Smith’s usual setting of New Jersey. Following in the footsteps of the successful Clerks II with a second attempt to do something unique but with more success than Jersey Girl, Zack and Miri had its sights on being a hit comedy with the bankable Seth Rogan and the same mix of crude comedy and character drama of Chasing Amy. Sadly, Zack and Miri leans way too heavily towards tiresome smutty comedy and failed to do well either critically or at the box office.
Once again, Smith also courted controversy with Zack and Miri Make a Porno and the MPAA thanks to a clever but sexually suggestive poster and the pervasive sexual dialogue and imagery of the film. Zack and Miri is occasionally amusing (you can’t beat fake porn titles like ’A Cock-In-Lips Now’ and ’Coccunt’) but it’s hardly up there with his best work, with Smith himself referring to the film as “me adulterating my own story…the story of how I made Clerks, with porn”.
Worst Moment: An overwrought and sentimental last section which aims for Chasing Amy but ends up closer to Jersey Girl.
Red State (2011)
While Red State isn’t exactly terrible, with exactly 10 films under his belt it ends up in the tail end of the bottom 5 by default. After the bitter disappointment of Cop Out, it also makes perfect sense for Smith to make something that eschews comedy for pitch black horror. For the most part it succeeds, as Red State is often genuinely unnerving and features some fantastic performances from its largely unknown cast.
However, Red State is extremely confused and messy, shifting between multiple genres without focus or cohesion. Released entirely independently through Smith’s own distributor, Red State was met with a mixed critical reception. For all of its flaws, Red State deserves some recognition for its place in Smith’s filmography as something entirely unique and a brave attempt to reacquaint himself with full independence from the studio system. It’s also one of the few films brave enough to take on the wrath of the sinister and controversial Westboro Baptist Church.
Worst Moment: A confused switch between genres reaches it’s worst point in a second half which suffers from a severe identity crisis or maybe just a severe Tarantino complex.
How would you rank Kevin Smith’s movies ?
This article was first posted on February 8, 2012