Kevin Smith, what have you wrought?

(I’m no damn good at recapping movies, but I had to give this one a shot.)

There’s no good way to say this, so I’ll just let it out: I think Kevin Smith peaked with Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. His 2001 sorta-opus expressed everything that Smith had it in him to express – chicks are hot, internet nerds suck, comic book nerds rule, and farts are funny. He wrangled an all-star cast (Shannon Elizabeth! Jon Stewart! Diedrich Bader! Jason Biggs! Will Ferrell! And others!) to act this out; he applied a sizable budget to funny stunts and effects. I think the result worked well as a popcorn movie, and I looked with bright eyes to what Smith could tackle next.

But there never was a “next.” Clerks II, like Jersey Girl, is a Neil Armstrong-sized step down from what Smith did in the 1990s. Sold to us gullible moviegoers as a “return to roots,” it internalizes all the problems from Smith’s big, failed breakout film (JG) and unforgiveably wedges in the characters from what’s still one of my favorite movies of the last decade. What didn’t I like? Where do we start?

1) Montages. I realize that musical montages aren’t new for Smith – Clerks (1994) opens with one, as Dante gets to the Quick Stop and opens the store. But in Jersey Girl, Smith resorted to mawkish, obvious montages to bludgeon home his big moments – the Springsteen song when Ben Affleck is pining over J-Lo, the Cure song (“High”) when he’s racing to his daughter’s play. Smith didn’t experiment and move on. He incorporated the sub-MTV montages into this movie, and oh god do they ever jar. Dante emotionally driving around Leonardo to the sounds of “1979”? A dance sequence set to “ABC”? Even the John Hughes films didn’t use the entire songs during the montages.

2) Mixed messages. The film opens with Talking Heads’ “(Nothing But) Flowers,” a song about suburbia being destroyed, thank god, by nature bursting up and overtaking Pizza Huts and other commercial shitscapes. It closes with [SPOILER ALERT!] Dante and Randal happily buying the Quick Stop and RST Video, welcoming the “first day of the rest of our lives” (that’s the actual line!) in a commercial shitscape. What is Smith saying? Does he need to try this hard to bring home the “Jersey rules” message? Is he mocking his heroes?

3) Lazy dialogue. Beyond the “first day” line I just mentioned, Smith’s script includes bon mots like “I’m horrified yet I can’t look away” and “You’re my best friend and I love you.” And I suppose I should set up a #4 to bitch about this point, but whatever; the plotting is lazy, too. In Clerks and Mallrats, Smith’s other all-in-one-day sagas, there was definite momentum and drama. You cheered for Dante to get out of work for a little while. You could tell the clock was ticking for Brodie’s reconciliation with… Shannon Doherty’s character whose name escapes me. Smith never achieves that feeling in Clerks II. Maybe it’s because the plot’s “deadline” (Dante has to leave with his fiance for Florida!) is a huge MacGuffin, or the Rosario Dawson romance is so poorly constructed, or… I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because the Mooby’s was so unrealistically depopulated.

I can’t say I hated this movie. The Lord of the Rings conversation was funny, if lazy. I liked that Randal has extended his misanthropy to the world of blog comment threads. And it would take a hell of a lot for any 2006 release to outdo Smith’s final shot. But damn, Kevin. I like you. I know you can do better than this.

Hell is other customers

Why yes, you can sit in front of that power outlet for an hour. No, pay no attention to the fact that I’m working frantically. Continue eating your yogurt and writing on your legal pad.

Starbucks: Where wireless connections and assholes can hang out, and do whatever!

Bobbing along in our barrels

While muddling through the last week of deadlines, deadlines and more deadlines, I watched through the 2004 FOX series “Wonderfalls.” Here was a show slated to debut in 2003, delayed until early 2004, and then only aired three times even though 13 episodes had been filmed. It was produced by Bryan Fuller of the worthless “Dead Like Me” and Tim Minear of the quite worthwhile “Firefly.” I didn’t know what to expect – was it going to be unbearably “different” like Fuller’s work? Was it going to make the most of its fantasy hook like Minear’s? Was the apparent overacting of its stars, as seen from the promos, going to drive me insane?

Roll call: Yes, yes, and yes.

“Wonderfalls,” as you’ve forgotten by now, was the story of 24-year old slacker Jaye Tyler (Caroline Dhavernas), a clerk in a Niagra Falls gift shop, who suddenly starts communing with the hideous chatchki she sells. Wax lions, teddy bears, and snake decals on T-shirts start giving her cryptic messages like “Save him from her!” and “Give him heart!” She (overactingly) talks back to them (out loud, for some reason), and after finding that nothing good comes of disobeying them, does whatever they say.

This is all written and filmed with a Costo-sized supply of cheekiness. The writers make every character sarcastic and witty (even the rubes are witty in a deadpan way). Oddly, they make all the female characters irksome and all the male characters flawless. This becomes a problem when Jaye meets Eric (Tyron Leitso), a newlywed whose wife was giving head to a bellhop in their honeymoon suite when he walked in the door. Eric went AWOL from his marriage and his life in New Jersey and settled in Niagra to bartend, and he’s absolutely saintly and perfect and characterless. He is immediately interested in Jaye; there is no downside to dating him; even though he’s funny and you enjoy watching him flirt with Jaye, one of the three stools of the show’s plot becomes completely predictable.

After a few episodes, after I watched Jaye extend fairly mundane problems into 43-minute sagas, I watched one of the features on this DVD set and learned that the show’s producers and writers provide the voices of the chatchkis. So I figured out the mystery of the talking animals – they are the disembodied spirits of lazy writers. When Jaye’s family’s French-Canadian maid is deported, the chatchkis don’t warn her about that. They tell her to ask the maid to make breakfast, which delays her so the INS has time to arrive and arrest her. Then they tell her to “bring her home,” and direct her to the house of her actual parents, who loathe her. So they tell her again to “bring her home,” and she arrives back to the Tyler household after some bureaucratic wrangling… which could have been dealt with originally if the chatchkis had, you know, told Jaye to file her maid’s citizenship papers.

The gimmick fades after a few episodes… it’s a little like “Scrubs,” which cut down on its fantasy sequences just when they were getting tiresome. And when we’re left with Jaye and her not-boyfriend and her family, this is a kitschy (was there a special on fishbowl lenses?) but cute series. It probably didn’t deserve its fate; it’s at least worth renting.