Guyinthe3rdrow: Wait a minute…I recognize this room. We’re back for another round of Objection! aren’t we?
Elessar: Damn that chloroform wore off quick huh? I mean…there’s no recovering from that is there?
Guyinthe3rdrow: Not really. On the plus side, it’s not like that’s the most incriminating thing either of us has been caught on tape for. Anyway, before we dig our graves even further, welcome to another week of Objection! I’m Guyinthe3rdRow, and with me is Elessar
Elessar: Yes I am and I promise to at least try and say something more horrifying than that in this article. Well, we’ve certainly got an interesting topic for that as discussion/debate goes.
Guyinthe3rdrow: With his upcoming, and somewhat headscratching new movie up for release soon…We Need to Talk About Kevin (…Smith, naturally).
Elessar: Aw you got me all excited for discussing Tilda Swinton. Ah well.
Yes, for our discussion this week, we are asking one of the most important and difficult questions facing our generation: Just what the f**k happened to Kevin Smith?
Guyinthe3rdrow: There are few filmmakers to come out of the 90s indie boom who have had as strange a trajectory to their lives and careers as Smith has had.
Coming blazing onto the scene with the success of his dark horse comedy Clerks, Smith became an inspiration to a whole generation of indie filmmakers. The influence of his dialogue-heavy, pop culture style was EVERYWHERE, for both good and bad. By the end of the 90s, he was in a pretty secure spot having broken into the big leagues (relatively speaking).
Elessar: And then fast forward to today, and he’s pretty much washed up. Oh his last few movies made money, sure, but that’s because he can underwrite them by showing them to his audiences at his speaking tours (which is cheating damn it!)
And so we come to our topic for today. When and where did Kevin Smith go wrong? Care to start us out with your theory?
Guyinthe3rdrow: Honestly, I’ve been mulling it over for a while now, particularly with regards to this debate. I’ve heard a lot of colorful theories on this (and I hope I’m not stepping in your territory on this one) but honestly, the more I look at it…weird as this sounds, I honestly feel like he got trapped by that earlier-mentioned influence of his early View Askew years.
Elessar: See, I can see the argument for that point of view (and part of me wants to think that he didn’t lose his mojo, in that he never HAD a mojo) but honestly, looking back on his movies, I think he started to go wrong as soon as he left the Askewniverse or however you spell it.
Say what you will about Mallrats and Chasing Amy, but even at their worst they were kind of interesting. Jersey Girl and Zack & Miri are just a mush of “God I don’t want to watch this” and Red State…well I opened my review of Red State with “Holy s**t does this suck.”
Guyinthe3rdrow: See, I’m still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as far as the first part of the post VAverse years go. Yeah, they weren’t great, but that’s not uncommon. He was stepping outside of his comfort zone and a LOT of people can slip when that happens. Even some of my favorite directors had some misfired movies while finding their footing.
I think that his work suffered is more a symptom than the main problem here.
Remember when Jersey Girl was first coming out? They were making a fairly big deal out of the fact that this was Smith’s first movie completely separated from the VAverse. No Jersey. No Jay and Silent Bob. None of that. Smith wanted us to see him hang up the trenchcoat and just be himself…and, critics and audiences REALLY let him have it for that.
Elessar: Well that and Bennifer. And the movie just plain not being very good.
I’d be a little more forgiving of his non VAverse years if they weren’t so consistently awful. I mean, Jersey Girl was bad, fine, first day out of the VAverse. Zack and Miri was forgettable, sure, he’d just gotten back out, he slipped. Cop Out sucked, okay so he didn’t write it. But then Red State and…I’m sorry Kevin but the problem is you.
But you were saying about getting trapped.
Guyinthe3rdrow: I look at his post VA years and there’s this weird sense of someone who’s trying to prove he’s not just a one-trick pony and not quite getting it. And he’s trying. Holy crap is he trying. Jersey Girl…well, we covered what happened with Jersey Girl. Meanwhile, from the sound of things, he was trying to match the success of Judd Apatow with Zack and Miri, to the point where he got frustrated when the film didn’t make Apatow-levels at the box office. Cop Out…man, reading up on Cop Out is like a Mexican standoff of blame. And in the middle of all of this, outside of his films, let’s not forget that, despite his swearing he was done with Silent Bob, he brought the character back in not one but two follow-ups to Clerks, as well as several other spinoff projects with Jason Mewes.
I bring up the latter because, maybe this is just me, but I look at his post-Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back forays into the role and there’s this weird sense of a sort of resignation to them.Elessar: He does seem to be a little…resigned to always being Silent Bob. But then, that might be part of the problem. The inbuilt fanbase for his VAverse stuff means he doesn’t NEED his other projects to make money, he can just return to the well.
Maybe that’s what he truly needs: a sink or swim moment. If Clerks hadn’t taken off, he’d have been 100,000 dollars in debt with nothing to show for it. Nowadays if his movie flops, it doesn’t matter. The revenue stream from the VAverse merchandise will keep him afloat no matter what, so he can just feel free to do whatever.
So I’ve already established when I think Smith started to go off the rails. Where do you think the issues first set in?
Guyinthe3rdrow: Honestly, I think it was in the aftermath of Jersey Girl.
Not just in terms of quality, mind you. Around this time was when he started developing that weirdly defensive streak towards criticism that’s been pretty consistently with him sense (though he’s apparently lapsing back into ‘all is forgiven’ mode over the advance good reviews for Tusk, so take that as you will.) Like I said before, JG was supposed to a new chapter for Smith. He was no longer his Silent Bob proxy, he was his own man. Suffice it to say, this movie meant a lot to him in spirit.
Regardless of whether or not the film was good or not (for my vote…yeah, not feeling it) the fact was, he was really hoping this movie would do well. To the point where he was already prepared to fight critics on it before it was out…so then the film failed to land with both critics and audiences, and it seems like it threw him for a loop.
This was supposed to be the start of the ‘Kevin Smith as Kevin Smith’ phase of his career…and no one wanted that. In fact, the one audience that seemed to still support him were…well…like you said, the people he built up in the VAverse years. So, somewhat broken, he picked up the trench coat and came back for another round.
You get a similar sense from Zack and Miri and Cop Out. He kept trying to break out, to make something with some mainstream appeal. Hell, you almost wouldn’t know he was involved in Cop Out were his name not on it in the marketing. Each time, the general audiences and critics savaged his efforts, but the VA crowd had his back.
Elessar: Oh Smith is just forgiving of the critics because the early reviews for Tusk have been pretty good. That Rotten Tomatoes number falls below 40 and he’ll be back in “Critics are the devil” mode.
The problem with him, or anyone, regarding JG as a ‘New chapter’ in Smith’s life is that…well it wasn’t. It was still a glib comedy about a Jersey native in his 20s who is unsatisfied with his life. It just took the swears and the pop culture references out. And when you take those things away from Smith, what does he have left? His brilliant direction? His peerless character building?
But there is something to be said for the VA fans always having his back. I think, in a lot of ways, in contributed to his f**k critics mentality. The worst thing you can do to an artist is tell them their art is perfect. And for a long time he was surrounded by people telling him nothing BUT that. After Clerks got good reviews, he seemed to think the other critics always had his back and the first couple times they didn’t he got…nasty.
Guyinthe3rdrow: Oh, I’m not gonna argue that he’s pretty fairweather with regards to critics. To the man’s credit, he’s not exactly alone in that camp. Just one of the most vocal on it (the web is full of people who share his view of praising a critic until they disagree – then the whole profession can go to Hell).
As far as JG, looked at in conjunction with Z&M and CO, again, I think he basically figured he was gonna become a big wheel in the industry at that point.
I mean, we even saw some of the signs of more mainstream creeping into later VA movies like Dogma and JaSBSB, but even those still fit that weird world view that made them a weird sell to general audiences.
With Jersey Girl, he’d sanded off all the ‘indie’ bits from his formula, and even put together a film with some of his more bankable recognized stars in its leads…which, ironically, was one of its failings – it WAS an incredibly safe, formulaic movie.
In trying to break into the mainstream, Smith cast aside those weird parts of his filmmaking that were his appeal in the first place.
Red State and Tusk are kind of an odd moment because he finally just stopped even trying to make it into the mainstream and decided “I’ll just fund it all myself.”
Which is admirable, don’t get me wrong. But…well…it seems though we are coming at this from different perspectives, we do at least agree his old fanbase had an unfortunate echo chamber effect on him.
Elessar: I do think that the whole Bennifer thing helped sink Jersey Girl (what, people didn’t like Gigli?) but it being safe to the point of blandness didn’t do it any favors either. I think that echo chamber idea has a lot of merit, frankly. Without someone around him to say “Kevin, that’s dumb,” he falls back on his worst instincts. The same thing happened to George Lucas and Tim Burton, and let’s not beat around the bush: Kevin has never, and probably will never, make a movie as good as Ed Wood.
I think the end of Clerks 2 really summed it up. He decided he was better off rejecting personal growth as a filmmaker and probably as a person and just hermetically sealing himself inside his own adolescence.
Guyinthe3rdrow: There is an accidentally disturbing element to the end of Clerks 2 like that. Actually, speaking of that movie, there is a weird thread I’ve been noticing as I thought about this, and it’s probably coincidence, but it does also lead to me to wonder with regards to the idea of his increasing frustration at never quite making it into the big leagues.
Elessar: And since he’s supposedly working on Clerks 3…for some reason…I imagine it will consist of Silent Bob deciding to direct an indie movie in the Quik Stop, because then it would be entirely circular. On that note, any hopes for the future? For Tusk or any of his…other upcoming projects?
Guyinthe3rdrow: Clerks 3 is turning into a sort of Schrodinger’s Cat for the man. Allegedly, he still wants to make it happen, but the Weinsteins aren’t biting.Given they own the distribution rights, they may have him by the brass.
As far as Tusk…I’ll be honest, I’m still trying to get a handle on this wave of his life. I mean, like I said, I honestly believe the Jersey Girl to Cop Out years were, ultimately, born of a desire to break into the mainstream, only to have the mainstream decide it wasn’t interested in what he had to say – a feeling that only seems to get fueled by the fact he then saw other people become successful with similar (for example, check out his commentary on Clerks: The Animated Series, the venom he heaps on Family Guy there is strangely telling). After the entire mess that was Cop Out, it seemed like he just had enough of the whole thing. The studios. The critics. All of it.
He instead went and made Red State on his own dime…and if you’ve ever heard the stories about his time marketing that film…well, let’s just say when he’s got devoted fans hanging on his every word in one corner, those reviews aren’t going to be humbling. With the success of Red State and now Tusk, it seems like he’s trying to reinvent himself as a card-carrying ‘weird’ filmmaker (okay, relative success on Red State. It wasn’t exactly adored critically, but his fans still liked it and it made enough to not hurt him).
Elessar: Are you suggesting that Smith wasn’t humbled by my naming Red State as the worst movie of 2011? (Admittedly at that point I hadn’t seen Jack and Jill because I still had the will to live.)
Ahem. Tusk is a movie I can’t figure out, because I can’t tell how seriously I’m supposed to take it. Also it keeps reminding me of The Human Centipede, a movie which fills me with unending rage (I’ll explain that at…another time). I honestly think Smith would be better off as just a writer. His writing skills are pretty solid, and with a good screenplay editor he could be legitimately great. But his directing skills are subpar at best and he needs someone to tell him no. So while I think he has it in him to improve again, and I’ll withhold judgement on Tusk until I’ve seen it, I’m not holding my breath.
Guyinthe3rdrow: I’m…still mixed on how to feel about what’s going to happen with Tusk. Maybe it could be good – assuming numbers don’t dip too hard, I may give it a fair shake in theaters. At the same time, I feel like Smith’s going ahead on making a trilogy out of an idea he spitballed in a podcast feels like it’s either born out of extreme confidence or a special breed of madness. At this point, all we can really do regarding that is to watch and wait.
Elessar: Really that’s all you can do. And even if the numbers dip into the 20s, I’ll still give it a shot. Cosmopolis was one of the best movies of 2012 and it only had a mid 60s score. Admittedly that might be because it was, to coin a phrase, totally freaking weird, but still.
Guyinthe3rdrow: That said, this has been an interesting discussion. Admittedly we intersected in several areas, but hopefully we still managed to offer enough perspectives here to keep this in the style of a debate. Overall, would you say you have any final thoughts or just an overall statement to make on what you feel happened with Smith’s career?
Elessar: I think he just made one movie no one liked and took it personally, and it scared him back into his shell. Everyone has an off day, even the Coen brothers, and if you let the critics get to you…well you’ll end up at Sundance pulling a stunt where you sell yourself your own movie.
Guyinthe3rdrow: Personally, I think it was more than just the one movie. That certainly kicked it off, but I feel like this was a bigger issue for the man. I mean, as we started deciding we were going to try and discuss this, I went in initially ready to be angry. Then I started trying to look at it more from his perspective and now I just feel bad for the man.
I mean, I don’t think Jersey Girl alone broke him. He kept trying to have a breakout hit afterward, but the fact is…honestly: Kevin Smith is Kevin Smith. He has his style, and it’s great for his particular audience, but it’s not really a style that’s suited for Hollywood blockbusters, nor the traditional studio system. He kept trying to play the game and the game kept knocking him down. While the VA fans sort of screwed with his ego, sad as it is to say, I do think they were also the one thing that really kept him going after a while.
Elessar: That seems pretty possible. I guess we’ll never know. And hey, who knows, maybe his story isn’t over yet. Maybe this is just act 2, with Red State being the, to quote Barry “All is lost moment.”
Well that’s it for this week’s Objection! As always, I’m Elessar.
Guyinthe3rdrow: While I honestly feel like Red State was a train wreck, I am hoping this direction at least takes him somewhere where he feels happy with what he’s done. After a decade of frustration and misplaced ego, it’d be kind of nice to at least be able to say, even if I don’t like his films, I’m at least okay with him as a person again.
…weird as that makes it sound. On that bizarrely sentimental note, I’m Guyinthe3rdRow.
Elessar: Now, to get you back where I found you…hey, does this rag smell like chloroform?
Guyinthe3rdrow: I–I’ll just use the door marked ‘Exit’ thanks…I mean, that IS a door, right? It’s not just painted on?
Elessar: Oh sure, if you wanna do it the easy way.
Guyinthe3rdrow: Till next time, folks.