Once upon a time, Kevin Smith was the indie filmmaker that every burgeoning young film geek wanted to become. The guy who maxed out a half-dozen credit cards and mortgaged his entire future on the hope that his talky, bare-bones first feature would take off. The guy who was able to capture and examine the ritual habits and daily conversations of incurable nerds trapped in various states of arrested development. The guy who introduced a nation to the act of snowballing.
A lot has changed since then, but Smith hasn’t. And that’s not a value judgment, necessarily, but rather an acknowledgement that he’s still an incredibly polarizing filmmaker, one seen as a gifted writer or a childish pedant or somewhere between the two depending on who you ask. (You’ll rarely get the same answer twice.) Even as he continues to transition into a fuller career as an on-air figure, thanks to his Smodcast network, Smith is forever one of the most debated ‘90s filmmakers and one that’s still trying to reinvent himself as a filmmaker. Whether those experiments actually worked is something we’ll get at momentarily, but at the very least, you can’t say the man settled.
So, with the release of his 11th feature, film/horror entry Tusk, drawing near, we figured it’s time to look back at Smith’s work, to compare his two decades of output against one another and attempt to determine what his best and worst movies have been. (Mild spoiler: you can probably guess the worst one, regardless of whether or not you’ve actually seen a Smith film recently.) From Clerks to Red State, we’ve debated them all at length and would like to present our definitive list of the best and worst of Kevin Smith.
10. Cop Out (2010)
I’d kill to go back in time and hang out on the set of the 2010 buddy cop comedy Cop Out, if only to see how someone made Tracy Morgan not funny. Because everything Tracy Morgan says is funny. Cop Out, however, is not funny, nor is Tracy Morgan in Cop Out. And, I repeat, everything Tracy Morgan says is funny. How did this happen?
Well, according to Kevin Smith, Morgan wasn’t the problem. “Were it not for Tracy, I would’ve killed myself or someone else during the filming of Cop Out,” he said on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast.
Bruce Willis, however? “It was fucking soul-crushing,” Smith said.
Unfortunately, it ain’t just Willis, either, though disinterest pours from every pore of his grubby husk. Nearly every single talent in this movie — Morgan, Willis, Rashida Jones, Guillermo Diaz, Jason Lee — is wasted, reduced to limp dialogue, stale gags, and indifference on every front. Seann William Scott, as a low-level thief, scores a few laughs by indulging the sense of abandon that comes with giving zero fucks.
Ultimately, Cop Out is just confused: incompatible leads, a clumsy tone, and Smith, simply the wrong man for this job. His lackadaisical pacing and extended riffs feel at odds with the genre it’s (ostensibly) spoofing and clash painfully with the moments of high action and surprisingly brutal violence.
To be fair, it’s the first film he directed that he didn’t also write, and he clarified in pre-release interviews that it’s “not MY movie, [it’s] a movie I was hired to direct.”
Oh well, everyone got paid. –Randall Colburn
9. Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)
Smith has never been afraid to court controversy, and Harvey Weinstein was all too happy to try and drum up business with Smith’s movies that way. Really, any director in his Miramax and Weinstein Company stables could be subject to Weinstein’s word-of-mouth marketing. (See: Bully, The Crying Game.) And with “Porno” in the title, how could audiences not be shocked and titillated?!
Problem is, Zack and Miri Make a Porno is not all that shocking. It’s dirty, it more than earns its R rating, but it’s not particularly gross or offensive. It’s worse: it’s bland and fairly forgettable. It’s actually just an old-fashioned romantic comedy caked in cheap jokes about vibrators, gay porn, uncommon sex acts, and the age-old riff about adult films being produced with zero quality whatsoever. That’s not controversial at all. It’s trite and desperate for attention. Cashing in on Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks’s then-rising star statuses, Smith tried to make a poor man’s Apatow film.
Zack and Miri are so strapped for cash that they decide to make an adult film riffing on Star Wars puns (“Star Whores” … very clever, yes) with penis lightsabers and the like. That’s our Smith! When the titular duo’s accidental first film goes viral, they make a fast feature on the fly. Smith’s comedy goes through predictable beats, from naughty casting sessions to Banks and Rogen finding their feelings for each other to a nice and tidy happy ending. Smith came up short on his nasty promises and his sense of humor alike. You know what’s probably the most controversial thing about this movie? The inclusion of Traci Lords in the cast. Remember when she nearly destroyed the adult film industry by making a ton of popular films while underage? Google that. Carefully. –Blake Goble
8. Jersey Girl (2004)
Look, there’s nothing wrong with trying to diversify your portfolio and show a breadth of scope. Kevin Smith wanted a sweet and salty dramedy about a single dad in New Jersey. That sounds, uh, fine. Not particularly unique, but that Kevin Smith edge, guys!
Is there a moment in this film that doesn’t induce groans? Sappy, derivative, and clichéd, Jersey Girl is a bungled effort. Instead of summarizing, let’s look at the problems. Smith resorts to cloying tactics like precocious little kids, abrupt character deaths, and a wise-talking grandpa telling it like it is (RIP George Carlin). Ben Affleck’s at his worst, Liv Tyler too, and Smith’s dirty dialogue undercuts any emotional truth. You can tell Smith was editing and editing trying to figure out how the hell he made a movie of this variety. The movie was in production forever, getting cut, re-shot, and altered based on star and studio demands; it was 2004, after all, and Bennifer was in full swing.
It was a gigantic misstep for the once-crowned prince of subversive indies. The Smith fan fallout was huge, and Smith retreated to something more comforting and familiar afterward in Clerks II. Smith’s people looked at the film and asked just what the hell he was doing, while the movie went on to get five Razzie nominations. In interviews, Smith took it very personally, talking about how he struggled to piece the film together and how hurt he was that more people didn’t give him a fair shake for trying something different. Fair. OR, and hear us out, he could have made a more sincere film. Clerks II was the embodiment of that adage, “stick to what you know.” And Clerks III is now happening. Good man, Smith! –Blake Goble
7. Red State (2011)
Give Kevin Smith some credit. Aside from Cop Out, the filmmaker’s recent output takes chances that would terrify his contemporaries. Maybe it was the relative failure of a retread like Clerks II or the scars he accrued working on Cop Out, but Smith’s making the movies he wants to make, even if they’re absurd clusterfucks like Red State.
The story of three teens who get abducted by a Christian cult of the Branch Davidians-cum-Westboro Baptist variety, Red State is pitch-black and, to its credit, visually lush. It’s also frustratingly nihilistic: characters set up as leads die quickly and unceremoniously, heroic actions curdle into cruel irony, and a choir of assault weapons burn through a militia’s worth of clips. Jesus Christ, those guns.
Confident writing’s typically been Smith’s saving grace, but Red State’s script is insecure: exposition-heavy, tonally inconsistent, and grasping to make a point that’s bigger and more complicated than Smith’s words allow.
As with Cop Out, Smith wastes a talented ensemble — Melissa Leo, John Goodman, Stephen Root, Badger from Breaking Bad — but this time he has an ace in the hole with cult actor Michael Parks. As Koresh/Phelps stand-in Abin Cooper, Parks turns each of his overblown, overwritten sermons into a master class of acting, infusing a palpable sense of humanity and plausible self-justification into a loathsome character.
Red State was marketed as a horror movie, and though the early scenes evoke the grimy dread of Eli Roth, the bleary POV and endless rattle of AK-47s neutralize any of the catharsis or ambiguity that distinguishes a truly affecting shocker. Too bad. –Randall Colburn
6. Clerks II (2006)
Making a sequel to the movie that made your career is a pretty dicey proposition. But what Smith does right (for the most part) with Clerks II is frame it as a poignant continuation of the original’s story, a confirmation that Dante and Randal never did escape the Quick Stop. At least, they don’t until the sequel’s opening scene, when Randal leaves the coffeemaker on overnight and burns their hallowed den of snark and apathy to the ground. It’s at this point that a Wizard of Oz-style Technicolor transformation goes down, the Talking Heads’ “Nothing but Flowers” comes on, and Smith uses his second most iconic duo to ruminate on aging and failure. It’s not a bad trick for a movie that also involves a climactic donkey show.
Sure, some of the excesses of Smith’s later work find their way in. The mid-film musical number set to the Jackson 5 comes out of nowhere, and Jennifer Schwalbach is a step behind the rest of the cast as Dante’s fiancée, who promises him a new life doing manual labor as a married man in Florida. (The film is also rather cruel in its constant comparisons between her and Rosario Dawson’s affable, comely fast food manager.) But the film is worth seeing just for the final, cathartic shouting match in a holding cell between Dante and Randal. They’re both compulsive fuckups, but they’re fuckups that can’t live without each other. But even if Clerks II ultimately gives the duo exactly the thing they want so desperately, its resonant last shot questions whether it’s actually what they wanted at all, right as it’s too late to change course. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
5. Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001)
This is the peak of Smith’s popularity, giving his dynamic duo a buddy comedy by way of a road flick, laced with insider fandom gags. It may be slight, but there’s no denying Smith’s love for Jay and Silent Bob or his insider game when flaying Hollywood and pop culture.
Look at his humor here. Probably the best joke in Jay and Silent Bob is a nasty little love letter to Miramax. In the ‘90s, the Mouse House-owned outfit was king of the awards circuits. Great auteurs like Quentin Tarantino, Jane Campion, Robert Rodriguez, and Steven Soderbergh were all, to a degree, in great debt to the studio for vaunting them. Smith, whose career was ushered in by the brothers Weinstein, probably knew the gossip of Miramax better than most.
At one point, Jay and Bob run afoul of a movie studio, sprinting from set to set. They wander onto Good Will Hunting 2: Hunting Season‘s set as extras. Affleck and Damon cameo for the moment, reprising their roles while playing themselves as disaffected actors and pretty boys. When they ask Gus Van Sant (also in a cameo) for direction, he tells them to shut up because he’s busy counting money. Without spoiling the scene, it’s funny as hell, spoofing the 1997 arthouse hit as an obnoxious blockbuster. It works because you get the sense that Smith knows what’s so damn silly and excessive about the movie business. –Blake Goble
4. Mallrats (1995)
If there’s a better character in the Smith canon, I’ll give him a stinkpalm. Jason Lee, I can only imagine, was conjured in a test tube to the exact specifications of Kevin Smith’s dream actor. And I sincerely have no idea how Mallrats would have turned out if not for him. ‘Cause plot-wise, this thing’s a mess.
You can’t entirely blame Smith for that, though. His original script, which involved a bizarre fake assassination attempt and much higher stakes for our protagonist, played so poorly with test audiences that he was forced to edit the film into incoherence. You’d be forgiven for being baffled when a couple guys just trying to win their girlfriends back are confronted with the city’s entire police force by film’s end.
It’s a testament, then, to Smith’s zany-as-fuck script and Lee’s Brodie for sustaining Mallrats on the strength of its inspired pop culture riffs and incredulous one-liners. Credit should also be given to the supporting players, who, along with Lee, help distract us from the curdled plot and aggressively bland leading turns by Jeremy London and Claire Forlani. As Forlani’s father, the great Michael Rooker turns every threat into a feast of language, and Clerks alum Brian O’Halloran — completely unrecognizable here — gets all the best lines (“definitely a jackhammer”) as dating show contestant Gil Hicks. And then there are Jay and Silent Bob, playing a friendlier, if still foul-mouthed, variation on their burnouts from Clerks. Jason Mewes is a genius, I swear it.
What’s obvious is that Smith is having a ball. Free from the financial limitations of Clerks and not yet faced with the need to reestablish his worth with Chasing Amy, he made a film that indulged his fanboy humor with charm, raunch, and just the right amount of panache.
Also, it’s a lovely sort of nostalgia piece; who hangs out at malls anymore? –Randall Colburn
3. Chasing Amy (1997)
Nerd humor, raunch, and overblown dialogue aside, Kevin Smith’s original Jersey trilogy is surprisingly diverse in terms of tone. Each film’s opening theme provides insight: Clerks uses Alice in Chains to signal a fuzzy, lo-fi affair not afraid to take it seriously; Squirtgun’s “Social” prepares us for the breezy tomfoolery of Mallrats; and the funky, slightly melancholy theme for Chasing Amy promises something sweet but sensitive.
And that it is. In the Smith canon, Chasing Amy, with its story of a romance between a sheltered comic creator (Ben Affleck as the absurdly named Holden McNeil) and a free-spirited lesbian (Joey Lauren Adams, way too shouty), is mostly remembered as a successful fusion of the filmmaker’s signature sense of humor and the kind of weighty romantic drama only hinted at in Clerks. And this is accurate, even if the film resonates much differently now than it did upon its 1997 release.
For one, Adams and Dwight Ewell (a delight as gay artist Hooper X) verge on the didactic as they endlessly, breathlessly explain queer ideology to Holden. It’s well-intentioned, sure — and was probably necessary for the sheltered suburban teens (myself included) that were Smith’s core audience — but the script for Chasing Amy is, in today’s parlance, the very definition of “mansplaining.” What does work, however, is Smith’s depiction of homophobia as it stood in the late ‘90s. As was the case with most teens and twentysomethings at that time, Jason Lee’s Banky isn’t hateful so much as curious, his lack of understanding resulting in equal parts amusement and judgement.
Secondly, from a modern perspective, Chasing Amy is less about queerness than it is slut-shaming, which is essentially Holden’s M.O. throughout the film’s latter half. Thankfully, Chasing Amy is progressive on that front, mainly because Smith seems to understand that Holden is an immature dickhead, someone preemptively emboldened and endlessly confused by his encounter with liberal sexual politics.
Also, Jay’s still funny. “Kiss my grits. Nooch.” –Randall Colburn
2. Clerks (1994)
The one that started it all. The story of Clerks’ very existence has become the stuff of cult legend: the aforementioned credit cards, the disastrous Sundance screening that by pure happenstance attracted the right people, the film’s steady ascension to ‘90s canonical status. But for all the complaints that Smith films only attract an audience because of who he is, none of it would’ve happened if Clerks wasn’t also a damned good movie.
It’s very much a chronicle of its time, when video stores served as a de facto cultural hub for a certain kind of geek and slackerdom was a status to which the youth of America aspired. At the center of a day-long nightmare rife with mothers who won’t stop unshelving milk, necrophilia, and a population that refuses to acknowledge the large “I ASSURE YOU WE ARE OPEN” sign out front, Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) attempt to negotiate the perils of their early 20s with a mixture of philosophical inquiry and vulgarity that’s just as jarring now as it was in 1994.
For a movie that asks you to care about a misanthrope and a selfish flop prone to long-winded complaining, Clerks makes you love Dante and Randal, because they’re the ultimate everymen. Where Dante struggles with meaningful relationships and the consequences of slut-shaming, Randal is walking chaos, the Joker of suburban New Jersey. He’s a foul-mouthed force of nature who couldn’t care less if he’s good at his job, because he gets that “a fucking monkey could do our jobs!” Clerks was able to do what the best comedies do: move beyond its infinite quotability and into the realm of hysterical movies that actually taught people a thing or two about the world. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer