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.

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