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Mr. Smith Goes to the Multiplex

Not So Silent Bob blows his own tooter.

It's already semi-legendary, in a puny sort of way. A mere 40 minutes (or an undendurable 40 minutes, depending on your point of view) into a New York press screening of "Clerks II," "Good Morning, America" movie critic Joel Siegel stormed out, exclaiming: "Time to go! First movie I've walked out of in 30 [bleeping] years!"

John Waters once said, of his earlier, grosser films, that if somebody were to vomit while watching one of his movies he would consider it the equivalent of a standing ovation. You'd think Smith -- whose comedies are full of toilet humor and deliberately juvenile sexuality -- would take Siegel's reaction the same way.

Since "Clerks" plopped upon the scene in 1994, Smith has directed a total of seven theatrical features, which Roger Ebert has rated from 1.5 to 3.5 stars. Here's what Ebert has had to say about them:

"Clerks" (1994)

Hardly anybody ever works in the movies, except at jobs like cops, robbers, drug dealers and space captains. One of the many charms of Kevin Smith's "Clerks" is that it clocks a full day on the job....

"Clerks," which contains no nudity or violence, was originally classified NC-17by the MPAA just on the basis of its language - which includes the kind of graphic descriptions of improbable sex acts that guys sometimes indulge in while killing vast amounts of celibate time. (One sexual encounter does take place during the movie, off screen, and after it becomes clear exactly what happened, we are all pretty much in agreement, I think, that offscreen is where it belongs.)... Within the limitations of his bare-bones production, Smith shows great invention, a natural feel for human comedy, and a knack for writing weird, sometimes brilliant, dialogue.

Much has been written about Generation X and the films about it. "Clerks" is so utterly authentic that its heroes have never heard of their generation. When they think of "X," it's on the way to the video store.

"Mallrats" (1995)

"Clerks" spoke with the sure, clear voice of an original filmmaker. In "Mallrats" the voice is muffled, and we sense instead advice from the tired, the establishment, the timid and other familiar Hollywood executive types.

The year that "Clerks" played at the Cannes Film Festival, I was the chairman of a panel discussion of independent filmmakers. Most of them talked about their battles to stay free from Hollywood's playsafe strategies. But Kevin Smith cheerfully said he'd be happy to do whatever the studios wanted, if they'd pay for his films. At the time, I thought he was joking.

"Chasing Amy" (1997)

"Chasing Amy" is a romantic comedy about people who write comic books for a living, and whose most passionate conversations can center on the sex lives of Archie and Jughead. Kevin Smith, who wrote and directed the movie--the third installment in his Jersey trilogy -- makes these characters intense and funny. It's all in the writing....

For Kevin Smith, "Chasing Amy" represents a big step ahead into the ranks of today's most interesting new directors. [...] There are also well-written speeches of surprising frankness about sex (the plumbing as well as the glory). "Chicks never tell you what to do," Holden complains. He thinks they should handle sex "like CNN or the Weather Channel -- providing constant updates." The main line of the story involves Holden's discovery that Alyssa is gay, and his even more inconvenient discovery that he loves her, anyway -- loves her, and her wit and personality and throaty, chuckling voice with an intensity that reveals to him the vacuity of all his previous loves. He is desperate. And so is Banky, his best friend, who also may be secretly in love with him.

"Dogma" (1999)

... I think a Catholic God might plausibly enjoy a movie like "Dogma," or at least understand the human impulses that made it, as he made them. ("He's lonely -- but he's funny," an angel says in the movie.) After all, it takes Catholic theology absolutely literally, and in such detail that non-Catholics may need to be issued Catechisms on their way into the theater (not everybody knows what a plenary indulgence is). Sure, it contains a lot of four-letter words, because it has characters who use them as punctuation. But, hey, they're vulgarities, not blasphemies. Venial, not mortal. Sure, it has a flawed prophet who never gives up trying to get into the heroine's pants, but even St. Augustine has been there, done that. [...]

If the film is less than perfect, it is because Smith is too much in love with his dialogue. Like George Bernard Shaw, he loves to involve his characters in long witty conversations about matters of religion, sexuality and politics. "Dogma" is one of those rare screenplays, like a Shaw playscript, that might actually read better than it plays; Smith is a gifted comic writer who loves paradox, rhetoric and unexpected zingers from the blind side. [...]

Kevin Smith has made a movie that reflects the spirit in which many Catholics regard their church. He has positioned his comedy on the balance line between theological rigidity and secular reality, which is where so many Catholics find themselves. He deals with eternal questions in terms of flawed characters who live now, today, in an imperfect world.

Those whose approach to religion is spiritual will have little trouble with "Dogma," because they will understand the characters as imperfect, sincere, clumsy seekers trying to do the right thing. Those who see religion more as a team, a club, a hobby or a pressure group are going to be upset. This movie takes theological matters out of the hands of "spokesmen" and entrusts them to--well, the unwashed. And goes so far as to suggest that God loves them. And is a Canadian.

"Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back" (2001)

"Jay And Silent Bob" will be seen as a self-indulgence by Kevin Smith to those outside the circle of his films -- and by those within it as Kevin Smith's indulgence to them.

And don't get me started on whether it's plenary or temporal. This is one of those movies where the inmates take over the asylum, by which I mean that the director was obviously unrestrained by any timid notions of "reaching the biggest possible audience," and allowed to make an in-joke of epic proportions. Like the Monty Python movies, it depends for full enjoyment on your encyclopedia knowledge of the world that generated it. [...]

Whether you will like "Jay And Silent Bob" depends on who you are. Most movies are made for everybody. Kevin Smith's movies are either made specifically for you, or specifically not made for you.

"Jersey Girl" (2004)

"Jersey Girl" is a romantic comedy written and directed by a kinder, gentler Kevin Smith. It's the kind of movie Hugh Grant might make, except for the way Smith has with his dialogue, which is truer and more direct than we expect. There are a couple of scenes here where a video store clerk cuts directly to the bottom line, and it feels like all sorts of romantic rules and regulations are being rewritten. [...]

Kevin Smith I believe has spent almost as much time in video stores as Quentin Tarantino, and his study of ancient cliches is put to good use in the closing act of his movie, which depends on not one but three off-the-shelf formulas: (1) The choice between the big city and staying with your family in a small town; (2) the parent who arrives at a school play just at the moment when the child onstage is in despair because that parent seems to be missing, and (3) the Slow Clap Syndrome. Smith is a gifted writer and I believe he knew exactly what he was doing by assembling these old reliables. I'm not sure he couldn't have done better, but by then we like the characters so much that we give the school play a pass.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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