With Red State out this week, we take a look back at the man who made New Jersey famous (no, not Frank Sinatra).
Love him or hate him, Kevin Smith represents an integral part of the American independent film scene of the ‘90s. His brand of eloquent, working-class slacker quickly became an archetype unto itself, and though the quality of his films varies wildly, he’s nothing if not consistent when it comes to style and tone. For your consideration, we submit this list of his films, from worst to best.
10. Cop Out (2010)
Not nearly as bad as everybody seemed to think when it came out, Cop Out is sometimes charming. No, seriously! The chemistry between Bruce Willis and Tracey Morgan intermittently generates results. And we can all agree that Seann William Scott is funny, right? Right? Look, I tried, okay?
9. Jersey Girl (2004)
Smith's penultimate Jersey-set film is pretty bland. Liv Tyler's spunky, sexually liberated grad student is grating, though the thought of hearing Ben Affleck perform songs from Sweeney Todd is funny. Ultimately, though, Jersey Girl is just too maudlin, too saccharine, and not interesting enough. When not even George Carlin can elevate your film beyond a Lifetime movie with dick jokes, you know you’re in trouble.
8. Mallrats (1995)
Granted, Mallrats is inept, but in an amiable and endearing way. It also plays like a teenage boy’s fantasy of what romance is like (you play video games, read comics, act like a smartass, and still wind up getting the hot chick). This is the first of Smith’s safety-net projects, a no-stakes comedy that he felt he could handle after Clerks made him look like the next big thing. Stan Lee’s cameo and the recurring jokes about Silent Bob peeping on Joey Lauren Adams prove that in spite of diarrheic dialogue and amateurish performances (I’m looking at you, Jeremy London), Smith's duds could still be entertaining.
7. Red State (2011)
This is the most ambitious of Smith’s post-View Askew films and, while it’s too rambling to be totally successful, it’s pretty exciting to see Smith trying so hard to pull the rug out from under his audience. Though Melissa Leo comes on stronger than she does in The Fighter (and that's saying a lot), Michael Parks’ performance as a psychopathic fundamentalist is pretty spot-on. Smith’s satire of fundamentalism falls flat, but the church scenes in the film are unsettling enough, and the last minute not-really-a-twist is pretty fun. The rest of the film is tense, but doesn’t really make the impact it strives to.
6. Dogma (1999)
The stilted and crude expository dialogue nearly wrecks Smith's religious farce. It also lurches all over the place tonally. (According to Smith, this is because he made some major changes to the film after seeing Pulp Fiction and being deeply impressed by the way that film shifts moods from scene to scene as well as it does. But Smith, of course, is no Quentin Tarantino.) Still, while it’s easy to shrug your shoulders at the Shit Demon and snicker at Chris Rock’s schtick as Christ’s 13th apostle, the cast makes Dogma a lot better than it has any right to be. Ultimately, it’s a more ambitious film than most of his other work, which makes it a worthwhile entry to his canon.
5. Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001)
While the first half of this bizarre kiss-off to Smith's Jersey films is very hit-or-miss, the second half is much more consistently surreal and appealing. Once Shannon Elizabeth's van blows up, things get very strange and very funny. It's just scene after scene of inside jokes and bizarre cameos, from former Marvel Comics CEO Joe Quesada's appearance as a pizza boy who gets it on with Eliza Dushku, to a scene where Gus Van Sant counts the money he's making from a Good Will Hunting sequel.
4. Clerks 2 (2006)
Remember the way that the original Clerks wrapped with a chapter ostentatiously entitled “Catharsis?” Clerks 2 is all catharsis, a totally superfluous (if comfortable and frequently enjoyable) stroll down memory lane with characters that are now even more concerned about their shitty stations in life because (gasp) they’re older! Smith fouls up most during the end, where Dante makes the right decisions for all the wrong reasons (Randall’s jailhouse guilt trip is supremely unfair and more than a little silly). But all the new characters, with the exception of Dante’s two new women in his life (especially Rosario Dawson’s ridiculous, fawning love object), are just as fun to be around as the old ones are. The Jay and Silent Bob stuff is handled very well; oddly, those two receive probably the strongest characterizations in the film.
3. Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)
Zack and Miri rehashes quite a bit from Chasing Amy, including the idea that a single act of sex between friends could be the make-or-break point in a relationship. But the chemistry between Elizabeth Banks and Seth Rogen largely redeems the recycled set-up. The film’s first half is a lot stronger than the second since there are no real stakes, giving Smith’s characters the freedom to act out without any consequences. (The high school reunion, featuring Justin Long’s hilarious cameo, is a high point.) But even when the characters are forced to get their shit together, Smith’s film mostly holds together until the film’s last chunk, which pours it on a little thick, especially in a scene where Craig Robinson is trying really hard to act. Also, did I really have to see Jason Mewes’ penis?
2. Clerks (1994)
Smith’s style of anecdotal humor is sharper here than it is in any of his successive comedies. Clerks’ characters are also probably his most unassuming and likable after Chasing Amy's. (For example, Jay and Silent Bob’s schtick is not nearly as tired as it would later become.) Dante Hicks still stands as probably Smith’s most sympathetic character because his biggest sin is not knowing when or how to move on. He’s fundamentally immature, but world-weary, thanks to his soul-crushing job and that's the tension that fuel's Smith's best work. The dialogue can be a bit clunky (nobody talks like this… except Kevin Smith fans, actually), and it’s fortunate that Smith didn’t go with the ghastly alternate ending (in which Dante is shot and killed by a robber), but Clerks has rightly earned its place as a cultural artifact.
1. Chasing Amy (1997)
Smith's only film in the Criterion Collection is also his best. The chemistry between Ben Affleck and Joey Lauren Adams is palpable, and his dialogue is sharp, sincere, and this time, believable. By turns funny and warm, the film cuts deeper than any of Smith's others. Chasing Amy feels like it’s miles apart from all of his other films (except maybe Clerks) — the characterizations are finely tuned and though the discussions of queerness are clunky, they’re delivered with earnest zeal by the film's cast, who by Smith's standards are all delivering grade-A performances. The stakes are higher in Chasing Amy — it's the only time Smith's loser characters fail without the safety net of knowing that they'll live to screw up another day, and this adds a certain grace to their situations.